Citroen number one driver Sebastien Loeb more than doubled his lead over Jari-Matti Latvala this morning in France.
Loeb began the day with a 13.1 second advantage and immediately increased that when he set the pace in the first test of the day, SS9, 1.9 seconds up on Mikko Hirvonen, who was 'best of the rest' and 2.1 seconds up on Latvala, who was third.
SS10, however, was the crucial one and a combination of a storming time from Loeb – he was 9.5 seconds quicker than Hirvonen – and a mistake from Latvala, when the Finn went into a ditch and lost 18 seconds, allowed the Frenchman to stretch his cushion from 15.2 seconds to 33.2 seconds.
Although Latvala then set the pace in SS11, Loeb was second and only 3.2 seconds slower. With SS12 then cancelled on safety grounds, Seb now heads back to the mid-day service with a comfortable 30 lead.
“We secured an excellent result on Pays d'Ormont [SS10] and that has given us a more comfortable lead. It means we'll be able to take it a little more easily in the trickiest sections, but I will still need to maintain a strong pace to make sure we don't get caught out,” Loeb stated.
“It was disappointing to lose time [in SS10] but I knew that long stage was important,” Latvala added. “I knew if I put Loeb under pressure there, I might have a chance of catching him, but I didn't want to go crazy. The stage was dry and open at the start, but after 6km the road went into a forest and became damp. After a fast narrow section I braked, but the brakes locked and my speed was too much for the next slow right corner. I tried to turn in but went off the road into a bank.
“I restarted but there was a lot of mud in the front left wheel, and the vibration affected the braking for the rest of the stage. It will be very difficult to catch Loeb now if it stays dry, but rain could be on its way this afternoon which may make things more unpredictable.”
Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile has enjoyed a good morning, setting the second best times in SS9 and SS10 and the third best time in SS11. After Latvala's error in SS10, he now trails his former team-mate by 10.8 seconds. He is also no longer under any pressure from Petter Solberg after the Norwegian crashed out in SS9. The incident happened at a fast-left hand bend when he left the road. Solberg then went off into the vinyards before re-crossing the stage and smashing into and felling a telegraph pole, which alarmingly almost hit a couple of spectators. Both Solberg and co-driver, Chris Patterson escaped unharmed, but they were unable to continue [To see video footage of the crash - CLICK HERE
“I am a little short on energy today, but I have managed to set good times on some of the stages,” Hirvonen noted. “I didn't really push on SS11, which was extremely quick. I'm going to keep putting Jari-Matti under pressure this afternoon. We saw this morning that a lot of things can happen so you need to be ready to take the slightest opportunity.”
Behind, Thierry Neuville has climbed up to fourth in his Citroen Junior WRT-run DS3 WRC car and lies 0.3 seconds up on Dani Sordo. However after checking in 2 minutes late at the start of SS11, he is almost certain to get a 20-second time penalty, which will drop him to sixth behind Sordo and Mads Ostberg.