x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Loeb in lead but Latvala not giving in

Sebastien Loeb produces a Rally Jordan masterclass, winning five of the Dead Sea event's six second-leg stages to open up a 24.6secs lead.

Sebastien Loeb produced a Rally Jordan masterclass yesterday, winning five of the Dead Sea event's six second-leg stages to open up a commanding 24.6secs lead ahead of the eight final gravel tests today. Buoyed by an ideal third-on-the-road starting position, Loeb led a four-car Citroen assault on BP Ford Abu Dhabi's overnight leader, Jari-Matti Latvala lost vital time sweeping roads clear for the pursuing field.

Having begun leg two almost 32secs behind Latvala, Loeb conquered both runs through the 41km Jordan River stage - the six-time world champion's pace in the dry, rocky river beds clawed some 43secs out of birthday boy Latvala, 25 today. The pressure on the young Finn, however, had already intensified when his teammate, Mikko Hirvonen - Loeb's principal challenger in the drivers' title hunt - severely damaged his front-left suspension in the opening stage. Forced to retire, Hirvonen re-starts today, but his misfortune left Latvala, who ended the day just 3.1secs behind the second-placed Sebastien Ogier, alone in fending off circling Citroen predators.

The Ford No 2's one-man resistance, however, was formidable; he never fell outside the top five and will be confident of closing Loeb's 27.7sec gap when the Frenchman resumes sweeping duties this morning. "My first priority is to ensure I finish but sometimes you need to take risks and I would really like to win," said Latvala. Citroen's Kimi Raikkonen, meanwhile, posted a hat-trick of top-eight stage times - his best WRC showing so far - and starts the final session in eighth.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi holds a two-minute lead after the opening leg of the two-day Middle East Rally Championship race running alongside with the WRC event. emegson@thenational.ae