WRC » 18 September 2004
Loeb, Solberg remain locked in Welsh battle.
World championship favourite Sebastien Loeb will not be allowed an easy passage to that first title, as Petter Solberg maintains the pressure in an attempt to stop his crown heading to France.
Loeb remains on top of the leaderboard in the Wales Rally GB at the end of the second leg but, as was the case on Friday, Solberg chiselled away at his lead throughout the afternoon, ending the day just 7.3secs adrift, that gap, at one point, having been more than double that.
The conditions again sparked memories of the old November rallies that used to end the world championship in Britain, with thick rain and heavy mist blanketing the valleys around Swansea as the crews set off. The precipitation meant that the opening three stages around the Epynt military ranges were not only slippery, but increasingly tricky as the gravel gave way to mud.
Loeb started the day determined to increase his advantage over the Norwegian, and showed his intent with victory on the opening stage at Crychan. The Citroen driver headed former world champion Marcus Gronholm by just a tenth through the first test, with Solberg third overall, a full 1.6secs adrift of his French rival.
Gronholm was only seven seconds behind Solberg going into the second day, comfortably ahead of his nearest challenger, and, with a slim chance of snatching the title at the end of the year, was pressing on right from the start. The never-say-die attitude was not necessarily suited to the conditions, however, and the Finn paid for his haste on stage nine.
The Epynt test, while a familiar name to rally enthusiasts, was a new stage to the rally, and featured a tarmac section in the middle of its 13km length. This is what caught Gronholm out, the Peugeot driver sliding wide at a relatively slow corner, ploughing through straw bales and into the roadside pole that they were protecting. The damage was immediately plain to see, with a wheel hanging off the 307 and its steering awry. Gronholm made it to the end of the stage on three wheels, but was well over the time limit, and out of the event.
That left the rest of the day effectively a battle between Loeb and Solberg, although there was one interloper who decided to muscle in on the stage-winning act.
Fastest through Epynt was Francois Duval, the young Belgian edging Loeb by just under a second. Fifth on the first stage of the day, Duval was in his element on Epynt, and showed that his result was no fluke by remaining in the top three stage times until the long test at Margam that followed the service halt. The Ford driver also won the same stage second time around, as the field repeated the loop after a fuel and tyre stop at Sennybridge.
Loeb and Solberg ensured that the stage wins were kept among the select trio throughout, with the Norwegian taking those not claimed by Duval, but 'allowing' the Belgian the glory of winning in front of the Superspecial crowd as the rally returned to Cardiff in the evening.
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