Citroen's Sebastien Loeb maintained his stranglehold on the Rally Ireland this morning, despite the atrocious conditions, which continue to make this opening round in the 2009 World Rally Championship extra challenging.

Loeb, who ended Friday's shortened opening day with a 44.4 second lead, was on it right from the off and he completed the first test, the 27.76 kilometre-run through Sloughan Glen 1, in 14 minutes 43.3 seconds - 12.7 seconds up on his team-mate, Dani Sordo.

The Frenchman then increased his cushion further in SS10 and SS11, 9.7 seconds quicker than anyone else in Ballinamallard 1 and 5.4 seconds ahead in Tempo 1.

He thus returned to service in Sligo with his overall advantage now well over a minute.

Sordo meanwhile continues to hold P2 overall and the Spaniard saw the margin to Mikko Hirvonen grow substantially in SS10 and SS11, when the Finn was slowed by power steering problems.

Hirvonen now lies 1 minute 17 seconds adrift and understandably no longer thinks he is in the running for the runners-up spot.

"Five kilometres from the end of the second stage this morning the pump broke going into a corner," he explained. "The car moved around a lot in the water and it was hard to 'catch' the sudden moves without power steering.

"My fight with Sordo is now over. I'm more than a minute behind him and that is too much to catch unless he has problems. There's so much water in the stages that it has washed away the mud."

Further down the order, Henning Solberg remains in a reasonably lonely fourth in his Stobart Ford Focus, although Chris Atkinson now holds fifth - and he had a great morning, posting two third fastest times and a fourth.

Britain's Matthew Wilson is next up, having moved up two places from eighth to sixth, with Sebastien Ogier seventh and Gareth MacHale eighth.

Ogier lost around 2 minutes in SS9 when he went off the road. The 2008 J-WRC champion pulled back some time in SS10 and SS11, but is now almost 30 seconds off P6.

Of the rest, Eamonn Boland and Khalid Al-Qassimi round out the top ten followed by Aaron MacHale, Urmo Aava, Alan Ring, Tim McNulty and Shaun Gallagher.

Aava, re-started under the SupeRally this morning, as did fellow Ford runner Jari-Matti Latvala and Niall McShea, who is competing in the new Proton Satria S2000.

After his exit yesterday, Jari-Matti's target for the final two days is a cautious run to the finish to guarantee points for the team. The 23-year-old re-started in 25th position and two fourth fastest times and one fifth place helped him climbed up to 21st.

"How can it rain so much?" he joked. "I've never driven in conditions where the car aquaplanes. There is so much water that the grip changes all the time. The main aim is to finish and regain my confidence so I'm not going to take risks in these conditions."

In the Junior World Rally Championship category, Hans Weijs remained on top until SS10, when Aaron Burkart re-took the initiative in his Suzuki Swift S1600. Burkart now leads Weijs by 17 seconds, with Martin Prokop third, albeit more than 40 seconds further back.

In terms of retirements, Conrad Rautenbach was the only 'works' exit. The Zimbabwean, who started day two in P5, went off the road and into a ditch in Sloughan Glen 1.

The action now resumes at 13.57 hours local time, when all three of this morning's tests will be repeated to conclude the second leg.

More to follow then...



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