Loeb and Solberg play cat and mouse

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The Independent Online

The champion and his likely successor put on a classic duel in the classic Rally GB elements of rain, fog, and even a shaft of sunlight.

The champion and his likely successor put on a classic duel in the classic Rally GB elements of rain, fog, and even a shaft of sunlight.

Sébastien Loeb's lead grew and then diminished in the changing conditions of South Wales yesterday as Petter Solberg found renewed resolve and set up the prospect of a tantalising finale.

Such was the ferocity of their contest that the rest could not stay in touch. They distanced themselves by more than two minutes, even their regular rivals unable to muster the pace or reliability to threaten them. Marcus Gronholm's Peugeot was crippled, while Markko Martin's Ford Focus lost power and any hope of victory.

A group of pro-hunt protesters delayed proceedings for 25 minutes, but nothing, it seemed, could check the momentum of Solberg's Subaru. The Norwegian, winner of this event for the past two years, launched his attack on the Citroën during the afternoon and reduced the deficit from 17.2 seconds to 7.3 seconds.

He said: "I'm pushing like hell, and went off the road at one point because I braked too late, but fortunately it cost me only about six seconds. Seb has done what he did on Friday. He went very fast in the morning, but we've come back, and it's going to be a great fight.''

Loeb, 30 points clear of Solberg going into this event, conceded that the challenge had forced him on to the back foot. "I'm not happy because Petter is faster than me even when he goes off!" said the Frenchman. "I am trying to win but there is no point in taking unnecessary risks.''

Solberg needs nothing less than a win to have a realistic hope of retaining the World Rally Championship, and expressed confidence that he would quickly close the 8.4 second overnight gap to Loeb. Instead, the Citroën edged further away, going fastest on two of the first three stages.

By then, Gronholm, frustrated by a series of problems with the new Peugeot, had fallen by the wayside. The Finn, pushing hard in third place, ripped off a wheel and was forced to retire.

Gronholm's demise promoted Martin, although the Estonian palpably did not share the optimism of his team principal, Malcolm Wilson, who felt the front runners could still be caught. Martin, more than half a minute adrift at that stage, said: "I'm in no man's land. It doesn't look as though I can match the pace of Solberg and Loeb.''

Alas for Martin, he was unable even to maintain his splendid isolation. An engine problem hampered his progress early in the afternoon, and he dropped out of serious contention.

Mark Higgins, also driving a Focus, maintained his status as the leading Briton, in eighth place. "What with the rain and fog, it's been the same old RAC, just warmer,'' he said.

Matthew Wilson, 17-year-old son of the Ford team principal, underlined his potential with another impressive day at the wheel of his 2002 Spec Focus. "We are hopeful Matthew can get a top 15 finish,'' Wilson Snr said. "I feel he is fully capable of a WRC Drive in the future.''

Wilson Snr and his team are endeavouring to hold on to second place in the manufacturers' championship against a backdrop of deep uncertainty. Ford have just pulled the plug on Jaguar and their Formula One effort, and the WRC operation could be the next to go. Wilson has held meetings with senior company officials and expects a verdict by early next month. He is trying to convince Ford that the exposure from the WRC is worth an investment of £20m a year, which is considerably less than the budgets of Citroën and Peugeot.