Motorsport: Loeb still in control at Rally NZ

By Eric Thompson

Eight-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb held off a concerted challenge from team-mate Mikko Hirvonen to stay in control of the Brother Rally New Zealand after two days of competition.

The Frenchman holds a 6.4sec buffer over the Finn after seven fast and furious stages around Whangarei and Kaipara yesterday. At the midway point Hirvonen had closed on Loeb, whittling the difference down to just over 1.5sec.

Loeb put his foot down in the first two afternoon stages and moved out to a 7.8sec lead heading into his least favourite part of the day - Girls High School - for the second time.

"I don't really like that stage," said Loeb. "It's very technical and I lost about 8sec there this morning. It was a difficult day and a good fight with Mikko.

"We started the day with a 4sec lead and finished it with a 6sec lead. It's not much but it's okay.

"We'll have to choose the right tyres for the last day but I have four soft tyres left. The important thing is to get through the stages without any problems."

Unlike the first time through Loeb's troublesome Girls High School stage, Hirvonen was unable to eat significantly into Loeb's lead the second time around in the afternoon and had to settle for just a 1.5sec inroad into his Citroen team-mate's time.

"It was a really great fight with Sebastien but unfortunately overall today he was 2sec faster," said Hirvonen.

"I wasn't perfect today and was too slow at the start of some stages and you can't afford to do that against Sebastien. I don't have any soft tyres left so it's going to be very difficult to fight over the last day.

"I'll just have to concentrate on keeping Petter [Solberg] behind me in each stage. It's going to be a bit tricky."

Ford driver Solberg continued to slowly claw back ground on the leaders. He started the day fourth and by close of play had moved into third, 1min 26sec behind Hirvonen. His run saw him nose in front of Evgeny Novikov by 29.2sec. "There were no problems today and I was just trying to keep in touch with the leaders," said Solberg.

"The forecast is for rain all day and we'll just have to see what we can do. If we can gain one second per kilometre it would be perfect but it all depends on the rain and how the road surface is.

"I was very pleased with my pace as I was on the first day in the afternoon. I have soft tyres for tomorrow so we'll see what we can do."

Solberg's factory team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala continued to make amends for his hiccup on the first day where he ended up in a farm field, tangled in fencing wire. He lost 4min getting a farmer to use sidecutters to free the car, and at this level of competition that's an epoch to make up. Not one to throw in the towel, Latvala put his head down and set two fastest stage times to cement himself into eighth place going into the final day of the rally, nearly five minutes adrift of Loeb.

"We started the morning a bit carefully and I wasn't at my best after the disaster on Friday," said Latvala.

"I started to get my confidence back on the second stage and we found some more improvements in the car during the day, which gives me confidence for Sunday.

"We are still in the rally and the main thing is that you always have to finish the rallies to get the results. It will be difficult to move any higher because the time difference is too big."

There was better news for the leading Kiwi, Hayden Paddon, who is in firm control of the S2000 class after two days of racing the clock. Paddon had a few heart-in-the-mouth moments on Friday when his Skoda decided to munch a few gears and then destroy its clutch.

He managed to nurse the car back to the service centre and the team swapped the ruined item for a new one without incurring any time penalties. Paddon has around a 30min lead over PG Andersson in his class and lies 12th overall.

"A nice, steady day and we kept in the middle of the road and had better times than the day before," said Paddon. "We've got a few more things to do to the car setup and see if we can learn a few more things about the car.

"Touch wood we've got a decent buffer over PG and Sunday's stages look pretty cool and I'm looking forward to getting on them."

In the domestic New Zealand Rally Championship Richard Mason continues to hold the lead from Emma Gilmour and Matt Jansen.

- Herald on Sunday

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