Rallying: Loeb stretches his advantage after testing rally in Greece

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The Independent Online

Sébastien Loeb extended his World Rally Championship lead to 31 points after he clinched his fourth victory from this year's six rallies in Greece yesterday.

The Frenchman's third Acropolis Rally success was not an easy one, as he had to overcome both a late puncture and stern challenges from both Ford drivers to secure the win, taking the power stage bonus points as well.

Jari-Matti Latvala led early on, before losing time with an overshoot and handling issues. The Finn, who was returning to the series after missing Argentina with a broken collarbone, charged back to get within a second of Loeb again, only for a mistake on Saturday to cause a puncture and brake damage and leave him four minutes off the lead by the end of the day. Latvala eventually finished third.

In the other works Ford, Petter Solberg initially lost ground with a tyre-choice error, had a scare when he damaged the underside of his car, and then began carving back into Loeb's lead – only to crash out on yesterday's first stage.

All of that left Loeb two minutes clear of his Citroën team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen, a sufficient margin to hold the lead even when he had to stop and change a punctured tyre with three stages to go.

Hirvonen had dropped some time because of a puncture on Friday, but he also lacked the pace to stay with the other front-runners and so was pleased to complete a Citroën one-two ahead of Latvala. Third place went to Jari-Matti Latvala of Finland in the fastest of the Fords.

It was the fourth victory of the season for Loeb, who has won the world title a record eight times, and it took his lead in the overall standings this year to 31 points over Hirvonen with seven races remaining. Mats Ostberg of Norway is in third place, a further nine points adrift after finishing fourth in Greece.

"This rally was so long and difficult," said Loeb, who survived a scare on stage 20 when he was forced to stop in order to change a left-rear puncture, after three kilometres.

"We had some fortune in the morning, but in general we had to fight really hard. It was really good. I tried to always keep my rhythm and do what I felt. I tried to manage the car and the tyres. I believe that everybody has done a great rally."

Solberg started Sunday's five stages trailing Loeb by 10.2 seconds, only to crash out on the opening test in his Ford Fiesta RS WRC.

The Norwegian's misfortune – he tore a rear wheel off his car after striking a tree – promoted Hirvonen up to second with Latvala securing the final podium place in third.

The Finn marked his return from injury by claiming 10 fastest stage times.

"At least after a long time I'm back on the podium," he said.

Amid heavy attrition in the rest of the WRC field, Mads Ostberg (in the Adapta Ford) recovered from a trip off the road on Friday to come back to fourth, ahead of the consistent Martin Prokop's Czech Ford.

Thierry Neuville succeeded in getting through a weekend without using Rally 2, but did lose several minutes with a broken driveshaft on Friday, leaving him a distant sixth for Citroën Junior.