Markko Martin leads Rallye Catalunya at the end of leg two after leader Sebastien Loeb was forced out of the event on the second stage of Saturday morning.

Loeb, who held a slender 2.0 second lead overnight, extended his lead on the opening stage of the morning, but the new World Champion retired on SS8 after damaging the sump on his Citroen Xsara.

Martin inherited the lead, with Marcus Gronholm moving into second place in the Peugeot and the duo won five of the days eight stages between them as the crews prepare for the final six stages of the event on Sunday.

The Ford driver holds a healthy lead of 39.7 seconds as, although Gronholm was fastest through SS9, SS11 and SS13, he was unable to make serious inroads into the Estonians advantage as the Focus was near the top of the timesheets on every stage of the day.

"I'm not really attacking, just driving safely to keep ahead of those behind us and I would have adopted a different pace if Loeb was still in the rally," Martin said at the end of the day. "I've managed to keep the same time gap all day. I wanted to finish the leg with a minimum 35 second gap and I've done that. It has been dry all leg which made tyre selection easier. Sunshine would be good tomorrow. I don't want mixed conditions because then there is the risk of making a mistake with tyre choice."

Those three stage wins have shown the pace of the Peugeot on the Spanish Tarmac, but Gronholm admits that he faces a battle to overhaul Martin on the 106.16km of stages that lie ahead.

"Everything has been OK today; I've been making small adjustments to the car and they all seem to have been working well," he said. "I lost a little confidence on the middle stage this morning, as I felt that the back end of the car was too loose. But it was fine again for the next stage, so I don't think we have a problem. The gap to the leader is quite big, but of course we will keep on pushing. Anything can still happen."

Local hero Carlos Sainz ended the day in third place, just 11.4 seconds behind Gronholm after winning SS14 - a repeat of SS10 which had to be cancelled earlier in the day for safety reasons due to the number of spectators.

The big move of the day was privateer Stephane Sarrazin who climbed from his overnight position of sixth to end the day fourth, although well down on a podium place. Although he gained one of those places thanks to Loeb's retirement, the Frenchman worked hard for the other as he turned a 23.1 seconds deficit to works Subaru driver Petter Solberg into a 28.5 second advantage after a superbly consistent performance.

And it doesn't promise to be an easy day for Solberg on Sunday, as he struggles with the Subaru Impreza and a flying Daniel Sola closes the gap behind. Sola showed the pace of the Mitsubishi Lancer WRC and ends the day just 12 seconds behind the outgoing champion - a position he would have taken had it not been for spin on SS11.

"I drove a bit more aggressively today and we are now very close to Petter and fifth position," he said. "I am very happy with our day, although it was disappointing to lose the time in stage 11; there was a lot of gravel on the inside of a slow corner and we had a half spun. The car has been perfect all day and we won't be changing anything for tomorrow."

Teammate Gigi Galli is seventh ahead of Nicolas Vouilloz in the Bozian Peugeot, the highlight of the day for the Frenchman being second place on SS12.

Off the other main contenders, Mikko Hirvonen dropped out of the points to ninth place, some 20 seconds behind Vouilloz, while Toni Gardemeister and Armin Schwarz end the day in tenth and eleventh. Gilles Panizzi in the third Mitsubishi is twelfth.

Nicolas Bernardi leads the JWRC battle in the Renault from Per-Gunnar Andersson in the Suzuki. Guy Wilks moved up to third during the second leg and, if things stay as they are, is heading for the JWRC title.


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