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Loeb pulls away in Cyprus after Gronholm spins

23 September 2006

Two time world rally champion, Sebastien Loeb has seized the lead on the Cyprus Rally, the twelfth round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship, after Marcus Gronholm spun in SS14.

Loeb began the day trailing the Finn by 6.4 seconds and initially the Ford driver seemed to have the edged, stretching his advantage to 10.2 seconds following the first two tests.

Seb though came back in the next two stages to ensure they concluded the morning loop having taken two stage wins each. As such the gap was reduced to 8.5 seconds heading into the mid-day service at Lemesos. The second loop though proved decisive and while Loeb was only 0.6 seconds quicker than Gronholm in SS13, the Finn made a mistake in the next test and while he was still second quickest, he conceded 8.9 seconds, something that crucially handed Loeb the lead. The Kronos Citroen ace then put the hammer down in SS15 and SS16, to end the leg 21.8 seconds in front, giving him a good cushion to take into the final day.

The Frenchman though isn't taking anything for granted and was quick to point out he was around 30 seconds up on the Finn at the last event in Japan going into the final day, only to see that reduced to just 5 seconds at the finish.

Gronholm meanwhile blamed his tyre choice for his inability to stop Loeb pulling away. He opted for the narrower BF Goodrich tyres in the afternoon, while Seb went for the wider spec. Despite the choice though, the BP Ford driver was still comfortably ahead of the rest of the pack in the afternoon, second quickest in all four tests.

Mikko Hirvonen completes the provisional podium, now a minute or so up on OMV Peugeot's Manfred Stohl, who lies fourth. Mikko was third fastest through three of the four tests in the morning and pretty much matched that consistency in the afternoon, adding another two third quickest times to his tally.

Stohl is also comfortable in fourth, the Austrian over 2 minutes up on the next best driver, although the podium is seemingly out of reach, unless one of the three drivers' ahead has problems.

Further-down the order, Toni Gardemeister moved up a place in the penultimate test, when Chris Atkinson went off the road and got stuck in a ditch. The Aussie dropped down the leader-board as a result, although if he does rejoin under the SupeRally on Sunday, he will do so from ninth, only one place off the final drivers' point.

Gardemeister had a positive day in his Astra-run Citroen Xsara WRC and even managed the third best time on both runs through the Foini-Koilinia stage, the longest of the event at 30.33 km. His only blip a minor off in SS12, which cost him around 10 seconds.

Xavier Pons is next up in sixth position in the third Kronos Citroen Xsara WRC, although the field is well spaced out - the Spaniard a minute further adrift of Gardemeister and over 3 minutes up on Petter Solberg, who is seventh. Pons' day has been plain sailing and he will be eager to maintain his run on Sunday, after a sequence of less than successful events, which culminated with him missing the Rally Japan, after his crash in Finland.

Subaru team leader, Petter Solberg was slowed in the morning by running early in the order and as a result he had to sweep away the loose gravel. That was less of an issue in the afternoon though and having moved ahead of his brother, Henning in SS12, he pulled further in front with the third best time in SS13 and two fourth best efforts in SS14 and SS16.

Henning finished the day on course for the final point, over 2 minutes up on Atkinson who had dropped down following his off in SS15. It wasn't an easy day for the OMV ace though and he began to have problems in SS11, when the engine on his Peugeot 307 starting leaking hot water, which seeped into the cockpit over both him and co-driver Cato Menkerud. The problem continued in the next test and he finished SS12 with the cockpit literally swimming in water. Forced to drive with saturated overalls, boots and gloves, the Norwegian struggled to grip the wet steering wheel and pedals and dropped around a minute through the 11km pass. That problem continued to hamper him on the afternoon loop and his times suffered as a result.

Daniel Sordo rounds out the top ten in the number two Kronos-run Citroen Xsara, the Spaniard on course for the final manufacturers' point, having re-started on Saturday after engine/turbo issues in the penultimate test on Friday. He was lucky though to get to the end of the day having had a 'slow roll' in the first loop in SS10. His Xsara landed the right way up after the incident however, and consequently he didn't lose too much time.

Of the other 'works' drivers, in addition to Sordo and Henning Solberg, Matthew Wilson and Juan Pablo Raies both utilised the SupeRally too this morning, ending the day in eleventh and 17th respectively. Wilson though was again forced out when he had a gear selection problem in the penultimate test and could not turn into a corner 4.5km from the start. It is not yet known if he will be able to re-start.

Wilson's Stobart VK team-mate, Luis-Perez Companc also retired. He had been running seventh overall, when he had power steering problems in SS11 and retired from the leg.

In the Production Car WRC category, Fumio Nutahara is top, over 4 minutes up on his nearest challenger, Aki Teiskonen, while Khalid Al-Qassimi is on course to take third.

Overnight leader, Nasser Al-Attiyah was looking strong until SS11, when he went off the road and was unable to rejoin – assuming he can re-start, he may yet be able to salvage a point or two, as only five of the ten PCWRC drivers' are still going.

Thus far, Nigel Heath has retired - going out on day one, while Andreas Tsouloftas has been excluded. Aaron Burkart, like Al-Attiyah, went out on SS11 - the German will not re-start on Sunday. Spyros Pavlides was another PCWRC casualty he ended the day in SS15.

The action now resumes on Sunday - the final leg is the shortest of the rally with 85.35km of competition. After starting at 07.41, competitors tackle three tests north-east of Lemesos in the hilly and forested Machairas area. They then return to the city for a spectacular asphalt test through the streets of the old town, which will be broadcast live across Europe on television. Two of the morning stages will be repeated before the finish in Lemesos at 16.42.


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