Gronholm's date with a ditch could end title challenge

Reigning world rally champion Marcus Gronholm all but wrote off his chances of claiming his third crown after crashing out of Rally Australia on Friday.

The Finnish driver was leading the event by 16 seconds from France's Sebastien Loeb going into the eighth of 10 stages Friday but ran off the track on the 18-kilometer (11-mile) Murray North section of the rally.

Gronholm lost over 16 minutes attempting to retrieve his Peugeot, effectively ruling him out of contention for a points finish.

That mistake is a serious blow to Gronholm's title chances, with championship leader - and Peugeot teammate - Richard Burns going strong and looking to extend his 11-point lead over the Finn in the standings.

Burns was in third place after racing Friday.

"I just got into this hairpin turn too quick," Gronholm said. "The car ended up in a ditch and, as it slid backwards, I couldn't get out. The championship is gone now."

Loeb, driving for Citroen, inherited the lead from Gronholm and ended the first full day of competition just 3.9 seconds ahead of Subaru's Petter Solberg.

Burns is comfortable in third spot, over 20 seconds clear of Subaru's Tommi Makinen while Carlos Sainz - who is second in the championship, five points down on Burns, is sixth for Citroen.

"The car is going very well and I have a good feeling," said Loeb. "We have a big fight with Petter now, so we will try to push as much as possible and to stay on the road.

"I think I am able to win the rally, but it will be difficult. There are still two long days and Petter is pushing hard."

The rally ends Sunday.

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