number one driver, Sebastien Loeb
has moved to the top of the leaderboard following the second leg of the Rally Japan on Saturday, the eleventh round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship.
Loeb began the day trailing BP Ford's Marcus Gronholm by around 10 seconds and although the Finn increased his cushion after winning the first two stages, Seb retaliated in the next test [SS13] to claim back 6.8 seconds. Gronholm then spun early on in the 22.43km Sipirkakim [SS14], something which cost him 20 seconds and the lead. The Finn then conceded another 10 seconds in SS15, after sliding off the road near the start. Loeb thus returned to the mid-day service with a 27.9 second advantage.
In the afternoon the gap remained pretty static with Gronholm and Loeb both taking another three stage wins each, although admittedly two of Seb's included the third and fourth runs through the Obihiro super special.
Heading into the overnight halt, Loeb now leads by 25.6 seconds, and assuming he wins on Sunday, he will take his first ever victory in Japan and in doing so will beat Carlos Sainz's record, to become the most successful driver ever in the history of the WRC – with 27 wins to his credit. The Frenchman though isn't taking anything for granted and reckons he will have to keep pushing on Sunday if he is to remain in P1.
Gronholm was understandably disappointed with his two mistakes, especially as he would still have been in front without them, albeit by only 5 or so seconds. The Finn though isn't giving up and with six stages still to go, he may yet get a chance to bounce back.
Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile remains in a lonely third, over 1.5 minutes off the lead, but also way ahead of Chris Atkinson, who is fourth, over 2.5 minutes further back. The 26-year-old was again consistent and set three second fastest times in the morning and was third in the other two. During the afternoon he was never outside the top four times and as such he further cemented his place on the podium.
Chris Atkinson put in a charge early on and moved up to fifth on the very first stage when he 'passed' Daniel Sordo. He then leaped ahead of Manfred Stohl in SS15, when he posted the third quickest time. Despite a few moments, including a slight off in SS14, the Aussie took it easier in the afternoon and finished the leg as the best placed of the three works Subaru's, some 15 seconds ahead of Stohl.
Stohl admitted he preferred the drier conditions on day two and was pleased to end the leg fifth overall in his OMV-backed Peugeot 307 - especially as this is his first Rally Japan.
Daniel Sordo is also taking in the event for the first time and he too was glad to see the back of the rain. The Spaniard reckoned he could have gone quicker in the afternoon but opted for caution in order to try and ensure he scores manufacturers' points. He now lies over 40 seconds off Stohl and only 6 ahead of Petter Solberg.