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.
"I think it has been a good day so far," Ostberg stated. "OK, it has been a bit up and down, but overall I think we have done three good stages. We have been taking a lot of time from Dani [Sordo] and a little bit of time from Thierry [Neuville] so we are very pleased with that. We can still increase the pace a little bit, I just need to make everything come together properly as in some corners I am still a little bit too careful.
“I enjoyed the long stage [SS10] a lot – it was so slippery so it was just like driving on gravel. When you drive with some oversteer and you don't have to brake straight into the corner you can drag the rear out a little bit so it was really good fun – and this afternoon there will be even more mud!”
M-Sport Ford duo Ott Tanak and Evgeny Novikov hold positions seven and eight, ahead of WRC MINI Team Portugal driver, Chris Atkinson and Martin Prokop, who complete the provisional points' scorers.
“It has been quite a difficult morning. We still have quite a few issues with the pacenotes – especially in the new stage – and it was quite difficult to find the rhythm," Tanak stated. "Other than that everything has been OK with no dramas. The feeling on Tarmac is definitely coming back, we just needed to be a little less cautious with the pacenotes.”
“This morning has been OK, but it has been quite difficult for us without a gravel crew. It means that we cannot push so much and have to be really careful to judge where the grip is," Novikov added. “We are just taking it at our own pace – nothing special – just trying to get as much experience of the stages as we can.”
In the support categories, Hayden Paddon has pulled out a 15.4 second gap to Craig Breen in the SWRC, while Elfyn Evans continues to dominate the WRC Academy, still over a minute up on Jose Suarez.
As for retirements, in addition to Solberg, Nasser Al-Attiyah also retired this morning after an off in SS10. That accident left two spectators injured, one with a broken arm and one with a broken leg.
Day two now continues this afternoon with a repeat-run through the morning loop. SS13, the 18.16 km Massif des Grands Crus-Ungersberg 2 stage, is due to start at 14.38 hours local time [13.38 hours UK time].Rallye de France-Alsace: Overall standings after Stage 12 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Loeb
Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC 2hours 03mins 06.9secs
2. Jari-Matti Latvala
Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 30.0secs
3. Mikko Hirvonen
Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +00mins 49.0secs
4. Thierry Neuville
Citroen Junior WRT DS3 WRC +01mins 23.5secs
5. Dani Sordo
Prodrive MINI John Cooper Works WRC +01mins 23.8secs
6. Mads Ostberg
Adapta WRT Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 25.6secs
7. Ott Tanak
M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +02mins 06.9secs
8. Evgeny Novikov
M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +02mins 34.2secs
9. Chris Atkinson
WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC +05mins 05.5secs
10. Martin Prokop
Czech Ford National Team Fiesta RS WRC +05mins 47.5secsOthers
11. Sebastien Ogier
VW Motorsport Skoda Fabia S2000 +06mins 30.8secs
12. Andreas Mikkelsen
VW Motorsport Skoda Fabia S2000 +06mins 36.6secs
13. Julien Maurin
Ford Fiesta WRC +07mins 41.3secs
14. Hayden Paddon
Skoda Fabia S2000 +09mins 34.6secs
15. Yvan Muller
MINI John Cooper Works WRC +09mins 36.5secs
16. Craig Breen
Ford Fiesta S2000 +09mins 50.0secs
17. Romain Dumas
MINI John Cooper Works WRC +10mins 19.8secs
18. PG Andersson
Proton Satria Neo S2000 +10mins 58.7secs
19. Hermann Gassner
Skoda Fabia S2000 +10mins 58.7secs
20. Sebastien Chardonnet
FFSA Citroen WRT DS3 WRC +11mins 11.7secs
22. Daniel Oliveira
Brazil WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +12mins 28.6secs
28. Paolo Nobre
WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC +15mins 55.3secsSWRC standings after Stage 12 (Top 3):
1. Hayden Paddon
Skoda Fabia S2000 2hours 12mins 41.5secs
2. Craig Breen
Ford Fiesta S2000 +00mins 15.4secs
3. PG Andersson
Proton Satria Neo S2000 +01mins 22.1secs
SWRC Academy standings after Stage 12 (Top 3):
1. Elfyn Evans
Ford Fiesta R2 2hours 20mins 59.8secs
2. Jose Suarez
Ford Fiesta R2 +01mins 15.1secs
3. John MacCrone
Ford Fiesta R2 +01mins 39.6secs
SS9. Petter Solberg
Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC Went off the road
SS10. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Qatar WRT Citroen DS3 WRC Accident
Mall times unofficial