World rally champion Sebastien Loeb
has just three competitive stages between himself and reaching double figures in terms of wins this season and, judging by his second leg performance on Rally Catalunya, the task will not be beyond him.
Although he failed to claim three of the day's stages, one of which went to the supporters who crammed into the opening test and caused it to be cancelled, Loeb added to his string of fastest times from day one to ease away into a 57-second lead by the end of the day. Fifth place on the day's final test was his worst showing of the rally so far, but a closely-matched result saw Citroen
team-mate Francois Duval take only 0.8secs out of the lead.
Duval again proved to be a consistent foil to Loeb's speed, taking top three times on every stage to count and keeping his car in one piece as he and Loeb stretched away from the rest of the field. The Belgian enjoyed a 1min 14secs lead over Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm exiting the final stage, an advantage that grew when the Finn failed to reach final service.
Gronholm had been a constant in third place, despite some wavering performances behind the pace-setting Citroens, but emerged from Capafonts 2 with a holed radiator, which prevented him from completing the road section back to sanctuary. The news will be welcomed only by Subaru's Petter Solberg, who looks unlikely to score points following his day one accident, but remains level on points with Gronholm for second in the championship.
Inheriting Gronholm's third position should have been Ford privateer Mikko Hirvonen, but the Finn was forced to change a .... belt at final service and picked up a 20-second penalty. That was enough to drop him behind another private entry, that of Xavier Pons, who made it three Xsara WRCs in the top three heading into day three. Hirvonen had begun the day in seventh spot, but gradually upped his pace to end the leg with fastest time on SS12.
The Finn's performance out-shone that of the works Ford team, which endured a nightmare tenth stage when both Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta spun. The Finn would have been best placed to benefit from Gronholm's retirement, but lost twelve minutes attempting to free his car from its resting place, and dropped to the lower reaches of the top 20. Kresta, meanwhile, lost just 20 seconds with his error, but that was enough to cost him a place, and leave him fifth overnight.
All of which played into Pons' hands, as a solid day - highlighted by second fastest time on SS12 - allowed him to rise quietly up the order and drop into third spot when others hit trouble. Just seven seconds divide the Spaniard and Hirvonen heading into day three, promising a thrilling battle for the final podium spot.
Gronholm's retirement left Peugeot honour in the hands of young stand-in Nicolas Bernardi, who again enjoyed a trouble-free day - minor gearbox niggles aside - to climb to sixth. The Frenchman heads another Ford privateer, Antony Warmbold, as well as Skoda's Jan Kopecky in the points positions.
The one remaining Subaru at the end of day one now stands on the verge of the top eight, with Chris Atkinson
gradually getting to grips with the Impreza on the tricky Spanish tarmac. Team-mate Stephane Sarrazin failed to restart after his roll and fire on SS6, but team leader Petter Solberg
was back on track after using the SupeRally system to resume. The Norwegian has admitted that he is using the remaining stages to gain an insight into the roads ahead of next April's 2006 rally, but claimed a couple of top ten times and was up to 16th overall by the close.