WRC

Loeb stretches his lead in Rally Portugal

Loeb stretches his lead in Rally Portugal

Sebastien Loeb stretched out his lead on the second leg of Rally Portugal, the Citroen pilot holding a solid lead on the World Rally Championship event with one day remaining. Manfred Stohl and Ilka Minor, OMV Kronos Citroen WRT,...

Sebastien Loeb stretched out his lead on the second leg of Rally Portugal, the Citroen pilot holding a solid lead on the World Rally Championship event with one day remaining.

Manfred Stohl and Ilka Minor, OMV Kronos Citroen WRT, Citroen Xsara WRC.
Photo by Team OMV.
Loeb had snatched the lead from Marcus Gronholm on Friday's final stage, and started the day with an edge of 3.1 seconds. It was never that close again, though, as Loeb set the fastest time in his Citroen C4 on every one of today's six stages, and finished the day with a margin of over 40 seconds to Gronholm.

"My car was working perfectly," Loeb confirmed at the day's end. "We were successful in our tire choices today, and had no problems at all."

Gronholm was much less successful in the tire lottery, though. Loeb started the day on the softer tires, while Gronholm's Ford works team chose the harder compound. However, the roads had not yet dried from the overnight rains, and Loeb was able to convert his superior grip on the slippery gravel to an additional 12-second lead on the first three stages.

"I wasn't 100% sure softer tyres would last more than 70km of stages on these roads," Gronholm reflected. "It was raining in service this morning but we knew from the recce that the roads were abrasive so I thought there was no alternative but to take a medium compound. Loeb had softer tyres for the wet conditions but I don't have a clear answer as to why he was quicker."

Loeb and Gronholm both switched compounds in the afternoon, with the roads having dried, and again the Frenchman's choice was more appropriate, Gronholm finding the medium compound too soft for his Ford Focus RS WRC, and Loeb broke the lead wide open in the afternoon.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautianen, BP Ford, Ford Focus WRC.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"Things didn't go so well this afternoon," he rued his choice. "The tyres were too soft and were moving about too much but I'm not sure that even with the right tyres I would have caught Loeb. It's disappointing but I think the gap is too big now unless Seb has problems."

And, once again, it has been a two-way battle for the lead, with everyone else far behind. Gronholm's teammate and fellow Finn, Mikko Hirvonen, is in third, but nearly two minutes adrift of Loeb -- having lost a stunning 90 seconds to the three-time WRC champion on today's leg.

"Conditions were slippery (in the morning) but consistent, so it wasn't so bad," Hirvonen said, having chosen a cut soft compound tire for the first three stages. "I was cautious on the first stage but pushed harder on the next two. My tyre choice was fine but from the times it looks like it would not have mattered what tyre we chose. Grip was consistent so there were no surprises, but I was a little worried about the slippery sections and was over-cautious in places."

While his pace was not enough to keep up with Loeb -- or Gronholm -- he did more than match the 2003 champion, Petter Solberg, who couldn't catch the younger Finn in spite of his new 2007-spec Subaru Impreza WRC; the gap grew from 7.5 seconds overnight to 13 seconds at the end of the day.

On these roads it's been very difficult to keep the tyres in good condition for the groups of stages, and I had to back off a bit here and there, but it's the same for everybody," the Norwegian veteran explained. "The car has run perfectly, and the set-up has improved steadily throughout the day. This morning it was a little bit too soft, and the balance wasn't very good, but we made a few chassis changes later on and got a much better feeling on the last two stages. The plan for tomorrow is catch Mikko. The gap is just 13 seconds, and the way the car feels now I think that could be possible."

Behind the two, it's Daniel Sordo in the other works Citroen, but the youngster is four minutes off his teammates' pace, and in no position to challenge Hirvonen or Solberg for a podium position. He was at times being challenged by Jari-Matti Latvala in the Stobart M-Sport-entered Ford Focus, but headed off the challenge, and grew the gap to the young Finn to 50 seconds by the end of the day.

"Today hasn't been too good for me," Latvala admitted. "This morning we made the wrong tyre choice and didn't put a big enough cut in the tyres. Because of this we slid off the road slightly and dropped some time, but it was much much better this afternoon. It felt like the speed was back when the stages dried up and we made the right tyre choice also. You have to respect the top guys, how fast they are going in these conditions is amazing. I know that I need to try and go at this speed also but I can't push it anymore here."

Henning Solberg, in the second Stobart M-Sport entry, and Daniel Carlsson, in a privateer Citroen Xsara, hold the final points-paying positions.

"It takes time for me to get things right and I still haven't had a lot of time in the car on gravel," said the elder Solberg, still getting used to his new-for-2007 Ford Focus. "I am slowly getting more confident now though, as we make changes to try and get things to work better. I will focus hard tomorrow to hold my position but I am still not 100 percent confident so I am not going to push 100 percent maybe 85, but yeah it's coming so we will wait and see."

The rally concludes tomorrow with four conventional specials, covering some 81 km, followed by a final 2.2-km superspecial in the Algarve Stadium.

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