Despite the best efforts of Citroen team-mate Dani Sordo, Sebastien Loeb has maintained his lead in Rally Monte Carlo after the second leg of the WRC season opener.
Sordo was a man on a mission on the opening stage of the morning to slice into Loeb's lead, but having seen his advantage cut to barely six seconds at the mid-day interval, the Frenchman blasted through SS6 – a repeat of the stage that Sordo had dominated earlier in the day – nearly 20 seconds faster than the young Spaniard to open his lead back up and end the leg with a lead almost identical to that he had enjoyed at the start of the day.
However, having admitted to feeling a little sore and tired towards the end of the day – a legacy of the injury that forced him to miss the closing events of the 2006 season – Loeb will be aware of the fact that he cannot afford to let up over the remaining two days with Sordo looking to take full advantage of any problems that may befall his team leader.
Delighted with his C4, Sordo was only out of touch of Loeb on one of the six stages and showed all his talents on the tricky first run through the St Pierreville – Antaigues in conditions that some of the more experienced drivers found tough.
Amongst those drivers was Marcus Gronholm who ends the leg in third place but over a minute off the pace having gradually dropped back from the Citroen pair during the course of the day. Third fastest on all of the days stages bar the final one, when he was fourth, the Finn was forced to deal with a gearbox problem during the morning and admitted that he was simply unable to deal with the pace of the two red cars ahead. Far from happy, Gronholm will now be hoping to make an impression on Saturday.
Behind Gronholm, Chris Atkinson heads the battle for fourth after a day that saw him outshine team-mate Petter Solberg. The Aussie moved into the position after the opening stage of the day and endured a mixed day thereafter, proving to be fast through the longest stage of the rally – the St Pierreville – Antaigues test at over 40km – although he struggled for pace on the St Martial - Le Chambon – Beleac stage that was the final test of both the morning and afternoon runs.
Although unlikely to make an impression on Gronholm ahead, Atkinson will need to focus on not making any mistakes on Saturday with Mikko Hirvonen in the second Ford having closed to within 20 seconds. The young Finn, seemingly unable to repeat the form he showed towards the end of 2006, had dropped down to seventh during the morning but fought back in the afternoon to finish the leg fifth, although both Toni Gardemeister in the MMSP Mitsubishi and Petter Solberg – the latter having lost time during the morning with a wrong tyre choice – are within striking distance.
Jan Kopecky continues to hold a points scoring position in eighth place ahead of the leading Stobart driver Jari-Matti Latvala and local ace Jean-Marie Cuoq, who showed the regulars how its done on the final stage of the day with the third fastest time behind Loeb and Sordo. Manfred Stohl, who was forced to deal with a brake issue during the afternoon, saw his chances of a strong finish vanish and dropped out of the top ten to eleventh.
Gareth MacHale is twelfth going into Saturdays third leg ahead of Matthew Wilson and Frederic Romeyer, with Henning Solberg and Eamonn Boland rounding out the top 16.