Rallying: Hirvonen proves class but Loeb still on track for crown

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The Independent Online

The World Championship contenders played cat and mouse through the fog, rain and mud here yesterday, leaving Mikko Hirvonen to enjoy his day as Wales Rally GB's top dog.

Characteristically hostile conditions on the South Wales stages forced Citroë*'s Sbastien Loeb and Ford's Marcus Gronholm to exercise caution, each monitoring the progress of the other for any sign of vulnerability.

Loeb, in any case, was content with his third place as he returned here last evening. Anything better than sixth come tomorrow afternoon, will guarantee him a fourth consecutive title, even if Gronholm, lying second, comes through to win. But Gronholm, too, paid the obscure, slippery tests due respect, biding his time for the appropriate moment to attack.

The Finn's compatriot and team-mate, Hirvonen, had no cause to show such restraint. He went about his job with the conviction of a man ready to succeed Gronholm as Ford's No 1.

Hirvonen, leading by almost 40 seconds, said: "It was a bit scary to go flat out in those conditions, but I have had a good day and could not have driven some of those corners better. I have a big smile on my face."

The likelihood is that Gronholm will have to grin and bear it. No matter what he does, Loeb can afford to select cruise control.

"We are not driving at the maximum as there is no need to," said Gronholm, who retires after this rally. "There was no point in taking risks. We know we can go faster when we have to."

Loeb followed Gronholm step for step and word for word. "I am not driving on the limit because the stages are very tricky at times," the Frenchman said. "But the car feels absolutely OK."

In other words, he has the ammunition if he needs to open fire and Gronholm is 18.3sec ahead of him.

Gronholm appeared even more reticent than Loeb on the opening stage, conscious that he could throw it all away in his determination to win the rally.

"I was too slow and just wanted to settle into a nice pace and keep the car on the road in this fog," Gronholm said. "This is going to be a difficult rally."

Loeb maintained he had to drive blind and keep faith in his co-driver. "That was a very fast stage, but it was so foggy I had to brake earlier and trust in the notes completely," he said. "The car feels really good, though."

That comment must have an ominous ring for Gronholm, who looked a little more comfortable in Resolfen, a stage that has caught him out in the past. Sweeping mist and blustery showers obliterated the cars from the view of intrepid spectators, massed in the forest clearings. What came through clear to all, was the pace of Hirvonen, who pulled into the lunchtime service with the fastest time on the three morning stages.

Loeb fed and watered in the knowledge that all was well with his world.

Utterly relaxed, he chatted with friends and posed for pictures with Citroë* guests as mechanics went through their routine checklist on the C4.

Hirvonen won two of the afternoon stages Loeb and Gronholm sharing the other to complete his masterly first leg.

The Briton, Matthew Wilson, moved up to an impressive sixth in the Stobart Ford.