Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has built a massive advantage on the Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo following the first two competitive stages of the day, the Frenchman extending his lead from 18.3 seconds, to 47.1 seconds at the end of SS8 and 1 minute 15.8 seconds at the end of SS9.

Tourette du Chateau-Saint Antonin 1 [SS8 - 24.80km] was the first proper test of the day, after SS7 had been stopped following Nicolas Vouilloz's accident.

Loeb stormed through the test, and only Ford's Francois Duval could match him, second fastest, just 0.1 seconds off the pace, while Marcus Gronholm was third, a further 28.3 seconds back.

As the first of the day's repeated stages, the damp and dirty test took competitors though series of sharp turns up into the mountains, before descending towards the village of St. Antonin and concluding with a succession of tight hairpins in the final stretch.

Petter Solberg was fourth fastest, while Mikko Hirvonen finished eighth, 1.8 seconds ahead of his more experienced ex-Ford team mate, Markko Martin.

In SS9 Loeb was again quickest, but this time no one was near the Citroen driver, who was 15.1 seconds up on Duval and a further 1.7 seconds up on Freddy Loix, who was third.

"Today has been getting better for me all the time," said Loix. "I think I'm making the right tyre choices, so I have quite a lot of confidence with the car and I'm able to push a bit. So far it's ok, but in Monte Carlo anything can happen as we have seen. My plan is to be there at the end."

The stage though caused a number of problems for some of the leading drivers, with heavy fog and ice patches making driving conditions difficult. Subaru's Hirvonen was the first to go, spinning his Impreza on a right hand corner, the 23-year-old Finn sustained damage to the front and rear of his car and was eventually forced to retire 9km from the finish.

Next was Carlos Sainz spinning his Citroen Xsara on a patch of melting snow and losing a wheel, the Spaniard demonstrated that the rally's variable conditions can catch out even the most experienced WRC drivers, while Gronholm dropped 40 seconds when he hit a slippery patch 500 metres from the finish.

"Right at the end of the stage we slid off the road on a very slow corner," explained the Finn, "you could have gone quicker if you were running! It wasn't a big problem, but it took some time to find reverse gear and so we lost about 40 seconds. I'm finding it quite difficult with all the snow and fog."

Roman Kresta also retired - he had been the leading privateer runner, ninth overall at the end of SS8 in his Hyundai Accent. He stopped in the stage, reason currently unknown.

In the overall after Loeb, Duval moves up to second, Martin is third and Gronholm drops down to fourth, with Solberg completing the top five.

"It's very tough, there was lots of fog on those two and it was very tricky to get the right tyre choice," noted Subaru's #1, "There was just about everything on the road, gravel, ice and snow. I'm happy though, it's going well and I'm just thinking about the rally finish. A finish on the podium is my plan, but it's so easy to go off here I'm just going to take it carefully and see what happens."

Nicolas Bernardi meanwhile leads the Junior WRC category, in his Renault Clio, ahead of Suzuki duo Urmo Aava and Kosti Katajamaki, second and third respectively.

After the finish, crews returned to service for the third service of the day. The action will now resume at 1552 hours local time, when both SS8 and SS9 will be repeated as SS10 and SS11.



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