Loeb leads as poor conditions hamper rivals

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The Independent Online

Different time of the year, same old hazards: Sébastien Loeb had to negotiate rain, mud and fog to keep rivals at bay and his World Rally Championship campaign on course yesterday.

Different time of the year, same old hazards: Sébastien Loeb had to negotiate rain, mud and fog to keep rivals at bay and his World Rally Championship campaign on course yesterday.

The Citroën driver emerged from conditions reminiscent of November at its most pernicious with a lead of 8.4sec at the end of the first leg of Rally GB.

Loeb, driving the lead car on the road, made the most of the firmer surface to establish a 19.5sec advantage on the morning's opening two stages.

Petter Solberg, the defending champion, headed a trio of drivers who still had Loeb in their sights last night. Marcus Gronholm, of Peugeot, was third and Ford's Markko Martin fourth. But the momentum was with Solberg on the final three stages and he will attack Loeb today.

The Norwegian, trailing Loeb by 30 points in the championship standings, said: "Things have got better for us during the day and we've closed the gap to Séb. It was too much to catch him today, but that is the plan for tomorrow.''

Loeb, seeking his maiden title, was content with his day's work. He has made it clear he will opt for the safer option here and if that means second place he will not be dismayed.

"We're doing our best and pushing on," Loeb said. "The handling of the car is good on these slippery stages. I've probably been a bit too careful in some places but it's better to do that than go off the road."

Loeb was as prudent late in the day as he had been opportunist earlier. He went in front by 6.4sec on the first stage and added 13.1sec on the second.

"It's super-slippery," Gronholm complained. "Séb's pace is very good, but it's definitely better for him running first on the road. The leading cars throw up a thin layer of mud, which makes it hard to get grip and Séb doesn't have that problem."

By the middle of the day the playing field was level and Gronholm responded. So did Solberg - the Subaru driver was fastest on three stages, suggesting he would be Loeb's main threat.

Martin was grateful to be in contention at all after a crash. He returned to the service park with a branch in the front right of the Focus and a fetching rearrangement of the bodywork.

Mark Higgins, also driving a Ford Focus, was Britain's leading driver, in ninth. Alister McRae bullied his way past junior runners in pursuit of the production class title but his 60-year-old father, Jimmy, was brought to a premature halt by a fuel starvation problem on his Subaru.

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