Motorsport: Loeb takes lead into final day

Eight-time world champion Sebastien Loeb will take a 6.4-second lead over teammate Mikko Hirvonen into tomorrow's final day. Photo / AP.
Eight-time world champion Sebastien Loeb will take a 6.4-second lead over teammate Mikko Hirvonen into tomorrow's final day. Photo / AP.

Eight-time world champion Sebastien Loeb will take a 6.4-second lead over teammate Mikko Hirvonen into tomorrow's final day of the Rally New Zealand.

The two Citroen drivers had another back-and-forth tussle during today's seven stages on the roads north of Auckland but, in the end, Loeb managed to extend the 4.0-second lead he held following yesterday's first leg.

The defending champion and current series leader added two stage victories to the five he picked up yesterday and now is the odds-on favourite to clinch his fifth rally in seven events this season.

But Loeb didn't reach that position without another serious fight from Hirvonen, who at the halfway point had whittled down the Frenchman's lead to just 1.7 seconds.

Loeb responded in style to the increased threat, setting the fastest time on both of the afternoon's opening two stages and finishing second quickest in the penultimate stage of the day to build up his lead to a healthier 7.9 seconds.

The final stage was potentially pivotal considering it was set on the same track where Hirvonen picked up 7.8 seconds on his rival and teammate earlier in the day.

However, Hirvonen was able to reduce the deficit by only 1.5 seconds this time around, putting Loeb well and truly in the driver's seat before the final seven stages of racing tomorrow.

"We've had a good battle with Mikko today,'' Loeb said. "It's exciting to have a battle with Mikko and tomorrow I will have to push to keep him behind.''

Hirvonen was enjoying himself as he fought to claw back time on his teammate, but he was wary that inclement weather tomorrow could leave him short of tire selection.

"Here we are, two days down and still in a proper fight so I'm having a good time,'' Hirvonen said. ``One thing is that I don't have any soft tyres left and I know Sebastien has a few, so it's going to be difficult to fight against him tomorrow,'' Hirvonen said.

The Citroen drivers hold a comfortable advantage over the rest of the field, as they have done for the majority of the rally, with Petter Solberg more than a minute and a half behind Loeb in third place.

Meanwhile, New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon continued to dominate the Super-2000 class, almost doubling the 25-minute lead he held after the first day's racing. Of more interest for the Kiwi, he sits 10 minutes 45 seconds behind Loeb in 12th overall after 15 stages.

- APNZ

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