CARDIFF // Citroen's Sebastien Loeb showed the form which won him five consecutive world championships yesterday. The Frenchman won four of the Rally Great Britain's six second day stages to move into pole position in the gripping title race duel with Mikko Hirvonen.
With heavy rain easing Loeb's life as the first car on the road, BP Ford Abu Dhabi Hirvonen's - who leads the Frenchman by an increasingly lame-looking point in the drivers' standings - was powerless to prevent the Citroen driver establishing himself a hearty 30.2 second overnight lead. Having started the day only 5.3 seconds adrift, Hirvonen won the opening Rhondda 1 stage to trim Loeb's lead to just 2.9seconds. The Finn's challenge, however, was not to last. Loeb won the next two stages, Crychan 1 and Halfway 1, to enter the midday service armed with an ominous 25 second window.
And it was a similar story in the afternoon re-runs. Hirvonen shaved another 2.1seconds off Loeb's lead in Rhondda 2, before the Frenchman hit back, winning Cychan 2 and the final Halfway 2 run to sit pretty at the top of the Wales leaderboard overnight. "I don't know if [Mikko's] done a mistake anywhere, or something like that, but I had always planned to push hard and [yesterday] was really, really good - I was flat-out," said Loeb. "The rain in the morning made the roads good for me, I had plenty of grip, but I still needed to push hard and make the most of it."
The enthralling battle for sup-remacy is guaranteed to make the final round of the World Rally Championship a tense affair. There is no service pencilled in for today, meaning any mechanical issues with cars will have to be shouldered by drivers through 80 kilometres of treacherous terrain. The persistent rain, standing water, mud, strong winds and patchy fog that have terrorised drivers' plans over the event's opening two days, however, are expected to ease today.
With only two loops of the 17.41km Port Talbot and 22.51km Rheola stages - run in the low lying areas between Swansea and Cardiff, far away from the forest regions which bring unpredictability to the conditions - Hirvonen knows he faces a tough task to stop Loeb defending his title. "I had a great start but something wasn't right on stages eight and nine," said Hirvonen. "I couldn't make good times and it felt as though something was perhaps jammed in the transmission. On long straights and at the exit of corners it felt as if there was something slowing me down.
"We won't know what it is until the team looks at the data. The difference is big now and I don't know if there are enough kilometres left to take that time back, but it's not over yet and this is a very tricky rally," he added. Away from the Loeb-Hirvonen showdown, Citroen's Dani Sordo completes the podium positions after a day in which he never only finished outside the top three once. The Spaniard, some 50 seconds adrift of Hirvonen, has a 24 second lead over teammate Norway's Petter Solberg - who is a mammoth two minutes and 37 seconds ahead of fifth-placed Sebastien Ogier.
Henning Solberg, Matthew Wilson and Jari-Matti Latvala form a trio of chasing Fords in sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively. The UAE's Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi, who retired from Friday's opening day with a drive shaft problem haunting the Ford team, posted several top 10 stage times to climb from 54th up 20 places. "We still have a day to take back more time, but I am pleased with my driving," said al Qassimi.