There may still be two days of Rally Catalunya left to run, but Citroen
appears to have one hand on the manufacturers' title after individual champion Sebastien Loeb
turned in another dominating tarmac performance.
Although any idea of another Corsican-style clean sweep may already have been dashed, courtesy of local favourite Dani Sola, Loeb nonetheless won five of the day's six tests, and headed into the weekend with a handy 53-second lead over Citroen
team-mate Francois Duval.
Despite tricky conditions, which caught many out in the opening stages, Loeb kept his head to gradually increase his lead with every stage. Even when Sola stole SS3 for Ford, the Frenchman came in second to stretch his advantage over the men that are most likely to be his main opposition for the remaining two days.
"It was quite difficult this morning, even tricky," Loeb revealed, "We knew there was a possibility of rain, but we didn't know how quickly the roads would dry off. In fact, the further we drove the drier it became. I pushed on and just remained cautious in the tricky parts, but I'm pleased with our tyre choice."
Citroen holds a 30-point advantage over Peugeot in the championship standings, and Duval's ability to ease ahead of Marcus Gronholm over the final two stages of the leg tightened the marque's grip on what would be a third consecutive title.
Gronholm, having been second at the final service halt, dropped fully 18.4secs behind Duval by the end of the sixth test, but had enjoyed a closely-fought battle with his Belgian rival over the first part.
On a good day for Ford, Toni Gardemeister ended the day in fourth place, but the starring roles went more to team-mate Roman Kresta, Sola and privateer Mikko Hirvonen, who all turned in top four stage performances, but unfortunately coupled them with erratic results elsewhere. Kresta, who took two top three results, ended the day in sixth spot, behind Mitsubishi's Gigi Galli, while Hirvonen and Sola lined up behind the Czech. Anthony Warmbold was eleventh overnight.
While Citroen, Peugeot and Ford enjoyed largely encouraging days, however, Subaru's fortunes took a double hit, with both Petter Solberg
and Stephane Sarrazin being forced out of the event, even if temporarily.
Solberg hit an earth bank on stage three, damaging the right-hand side of his Impreza and, despite completing the test, was forced to call it a day when the steering proved irreparable before the next stage began. The Norwegian looks set to rejoin under the SupeRally regulations, but Sarrazin's prospects look less promising after the Frenchman, who was enjoying a solid run, rolled his car, which then caught fire. Like Solberg, Sarrazin was unhurt in the incident, but the tem is currently deciding whether or not he can resume on Saturday morning.