Rallying: Superb Loeb resumes dominance

Sebastien Loeb, the world champion, seized control of the Monte Carlo Rally by taking three of the first day's four stages as the new season got under way yesterday.

Sebastien Loeb, the world champion, seized control of the Monte Carlo Rally by taking three of the first day's four stages as the new season got under way yesterday.

The Frenchman is going for for a third consecutive win in the principality and showed exactly why he was the pre-rally favourite when he won the first stage by over 11 seconds from his new team-mate François Duval to continue his fine form from 2004.

Loeb, in his Citroën, was pegged back on stage two when the former world champion Marcus Gronholm took his Peugeot to the fastest time, narrowly beating Duval, only for Loeb to be back in charge on the day's final two stages.

"Everything is going exactly as I expected," Loeb said. "François is very strong and I'm pleased to be in front of him. Me being the champion is now history and I'm pushing as hard as ever."

Loeb started stage three with a 10.5sec advantage over Duval but more than doubled it with his second fastest time of the rally, although his Citroën team-mate did cling on to take his third straight runners-up spot. The 30-year-old was then quickest by more than 10sec on the fourth stage to secure a lead of 32.7sec from Duval.

Gronholm is well placed in third overall after three stages but his new team-mate Markko Martin did not enjoy the best of debuts for Peugeot as has slipped to sixth, behind Ford's Toni Gardemeister, with Mitsubishi's Gilles Panizzi in seventh and Peugeot's French driver Didier Auriol in eighth. Another former world champion, Petter Solberg, meanwhile, ended a troubled first day in fourth place.

Solberg, the world's best in 2003, ended the day fourth overall after his Subaru encountered severe brake problems in the opening stage. "We had a problem at the end of a long straight," the Swede said. "I had no brake power. I pushed the pedal as hard as I could but we went off the road and had quite a bad impact. [But] we were able to get going again and finish the stage."

In the junior world championship, Kris Meeke is running third in his Citroën, just over 30sec behind leader Per-Gunnar Andersson. Guy Wilks is fourth for Suzuki.

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