Sebastien Loeb and the Kronos Citroen team were at the top of their game today at the Tour de Corse, their home event on the World Rally Championship circuit. Loeb, defending his 2005 victory on the picturesque island, won two of the four stages today, while his teammate, Daniel Sordo, took one.
"I went quickly on the first stage of the day, and then I adapted my rhythm to match that of Marcus," the double world champion recounted. "I think he has calmed things down a bit. I was a bit more comfortable too, as is always the case when you have a bit of a lead. And the Xsara is truly a fantastic car when the going is really narrow and twisty."
Gronholm had opted for softer suspension settings for the second leg, but was uncomfortable with the lack of feel on the first stage of the day, the 34 km Vico-Plage du Liamone 1, losing 7.8 seconds to Loeb. The Finn then changed the settings back himself before SS7, and recouped some of the lost speed. On SS7, the second pass through Vico-Plage du Liamone, he was only 3.7 seconds behind Loeb's Citroen.
"My feeling with the car wasn't 100 per cent this morning," Gronholm explained. "I didn't push hard enough but the stages were quite difficult, covered in gravel and slippery and twisty. The handling on the first stage didn't feel as sharp. As the damper settings were the only thing that was different to yesterday, I changed them back again."
That was better, but still not at the pace of the Kronos drivers. The two Citroen pilots were clearly in their element, and Sordo dropped less than two seconds to his twice-world champion teammate. The performance moved him up strongly in the standings, from fifth to third.
"Everything felt better today and I made no mistakes but Dani was just that little bit faster than me," said Hirvonen. "I enjoy a good battle, that's how rallying should be, and that's exactly what Dani and I have had. I couldn't go any faster but I will try to catch him tomorrow - it's not over yet. Asphalt isn't my best surface and I think I still need to improve my driving on it."
Bengue, driving a privateer Peugeot 307 WRC, could not keep up the pace of the two leading teams, and now stands in fifth place, 44 seconds behind Hirvonen. Xavier Pons, in another privateer Citroen Xsara WRC, kept pace with Bengue on the day, and remains eight seconds adrift.
It was another day to forget for the Subaru World Rally Team and for the two nominated drivers, 2003 world champion Petter Solberg and his young teammate, Chris Atkinson. While the two moved up in the standings (from 14th to 11th and 29th 14th, respectively), they were far off the pace, and even the experienced Solberg lost two minutes to Loeb on the day.
"It's been another difficult day for me," said the downcast Solberg. "I'm doing my best and testing a lot of things, but that's pretty much all I can do."
"The reason we have been setting some bad times is that we have been desperately trying to find the right setup by changing things in case it will tell us something," explained Phil Mills, Solberg's co-driver.
With over five minutes' gap to the front and 51 seconds to the eighth-placed Stephane Sarrazin -- doing a one-time drive for the Subaru team -- Solberg is unlikely to add to his rather meager 2006 points total tomorrow.
And Gronholm -- who only has a single tarmac rally victory on his illustrious CV -- is resigned to targeting the eight points for second place as well, with Loeb comfortably perched at the top.
"Tomorrow I won't try to attack," he said. "Second is a good position and there is no point in me risking that in trying to achieve the impossible."
The rally concludes tomorrow with four special stages covering 110 km.