Rallying: Loeb takes lead as tyres fail Gronholm

Sebastien Loeb is on course for a second successive victory in the Monte Carlo Rally after taking the lead in the season opener in the French Alps yesterday.

Citroën's 29-year-old French driver seized the advantage on the final stage of a day dominated by Finland's former world champion Marcus Gronholm in the new Peugeot.

Gronholm won two of the first four special stages as the 307 car, which has replaced the 206 in which he won the championship in 2000 and 2002, enjoyed an encouraging debut. But he paid for having the wrong tyres in the final timed test along twisty Alpine roads covered in snow and ice, and lost almost 30 seconds.

Gronholm dropped to third, almost 19 seconds adrift of the favourite, Loeb, who leads the Ford Focus of Estonia's Markko Martin by 18.3sec.

Loeb, who was runner-up in the championship last year after being ordered by Citroën to play safe in the title decider in South Wales in order to ensure they won the manufacturers' crown, also won two of the stages. Officials had to scrap the first special stage for safety reasons because too many spectators had headed into the Alps.

With Colin McRae and Richard Burns both missing from this year's title battle, British interest centred on the world junior championship.

The Ulsterman Kris Meeke is the highest place Briton, in 25th place in his Opel Corsa. Meeke is almost 16 minutes adrift of Loeb while Oliver Marshall is 33rd, over half an hour behind, in a Renault.

Darlington's Guy Wilks was forced to abandon the penultimate stage with mechanical problems in his Suzuki, while Natalie Barratt, Britain's top female rally driver, called it a day on the third stage when her MG ZR suffered front axle trouble.

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