Loeb inherits lead in Sweden

Sebastien Loeb, winner of the opening rally in Monte Carlo, inherited the lead on day two of the Swedish Rally when leg one leader Markko Martin hit a rock inside a snow bank, damaging the Ford Focus on stage 11. "I inherited the lead," Seb ...

Sebastien Loeb, winner of the opening rally in Monte Carlo, inherited the lead on day two of the Swedish Rally when leg one leader Markko Martin hit a rock inside a snow bank, damaging the Ford Focus on stage 11.

"I inherited the lead," Seb commented calmly. "I am obviously not going to say that I am not satisfied, but I am not getting over excited about it either. What happened to Markko proves that at the speeds we are driving, it is very easy to make a mistake. I mustn't lose my concentration to maintain the same pace in order to keep Marcus Grvnholm behind me..."

The Citroen driver was hot on the heels of Martin yesterday and today waiting for the opportunity to present itself. On SS11 it did, and Loeb held off the charging Marcus Gronholm to take the overall lead going into the final leg of the second round in the FIA World Rally Championship.

If the snowy conditions remain, Gronholm will be a tough contender, even if he is currently some 40 seconds behind Loeb. The Peugeot driver has won the event three times and likes the wintry conditions, a trademark of the Swedish Rally.

Yesterday started with icy snow but warmer temperatures prevailed, making for a mud bath. The same was predicted for today, an ideal for Martin and his Ford Focus. Predictions are not always correct, as was proven by the snow on the rally route in today's second leg.

The morning stage, Sundsjon 1, showed the first sign of a chink in the armor of the Ford Focus for rally leader, Martin - a clutch problem. As it turned out, his closest competitor, Loeb, also had problems allowing Martin, at the time, to keep his lead. Gronholm had the fastest time on the 20.78km SS6. Loeb was second and Martin managed third followed by Carlos Sainz and Janne Tuohino.

Gronholm's attack on the leaderboard continued as the two-time WRC champion set fastest time on SS7. The Peugeot driver handled the 11.24km Malta 1 just slight over two seconds ahead of Citroen's Sainz. Young Tuohino was third fastest in a Ford Focus followed by Martin and Loeb.

Gronholm's teammate, Freddy Loix continued his ill-fated luck from yesterday's leg one when he went off the road into a ditch and mangled a tree. The Peugeot continued but dropped Loix further down the overall leaderboard and really, out of podium contention.

The top three overall going into SS8 were Martin, Loeb and Sainz with Gronholm just seconds behind Sainz in fourth.

The 20.12km Fredirksberg marked three for three stage wins for the Peugeot veteran driver. Sainz had a bit of a slide on the snowy road, allowing Gronholm to move into third overall. The Spainard lost nearly one minute when he put his Citroen into a snow bank and had to clean off the radiator, dropping him to seventh overall.

"I'm happy to be up to third place, but now it will be really difficult to make up more places," expressed Gronholm. "I'm going to try, but the others are going very fast as well. I'm still not totally happy about my feeling with the car -- I think we are sliding too much and going too sideways. The snow is quite slippery, and in many ways it is more difficult than yesterday."

Martin could still taste victory taking second for the stage and hanging on to a slim thirty second lead over Loeb. Mikko Hirvonen was third fastest, the Subaru driver was just two-point seven seconds off the pace of Gronholm and four-point one seconds faster than his teammate Solberg.

Loeb made up time to leader Martin by clinching victory on the SS9 26.39km Lejen, Martin was second followed by Gronholm. The three pulled away from the other rallyists making it a three-way battle for overall.

Ford driver Francois Duval went off and lost 43 minutes. Hirvonen's brilliant run in the previous stage may have came to naught on the ninth stage as the young driver went off, dug his Subaru out of the snow and lost six minutes but did finish the stage - determination! Having a second day with a fantastic drive and still in the hunt for a top five finish after a remarkable first day is Tuohino.

Gronholm, the man on the move, took SS10, the 11.25 km Malta 2, with ease over the Citroen team cars of Sainz and Loeb. Martin was fourth but had lost time on the overall lead to Loeb and Gronholm.

And then it happened: on the second run of the 20.78km Sundsjon, Martin, who favors gravel conditions, came too close to a snow bank, breaking a wheel and the rear suspension. The Estonian limped his Focus to a finish and the service area on three drivable wheels, with the fourth dragging on the ground.

"I must have gone closer to one of the snow banks than others had because I hit a rock that was hidden in it," explained a downtrodden Martin.

Loeb inherited the overall lead and set fastest time on the SS11. Gronholm who had inherited second overall finished second on the stage. Sainz was third fastest moving him to fifth overall.

On the other hand for the Ford team, Martin's teammate Duval had a brilliant drive after the off on the previous stage and finished fourth fastest. Hirvonen was fifth but the real story was Tuohino's sixth for the stage and in third overall 12.2 seconds ahead of the defending WRC champ Solberg who had gone off the road causing suspension damage.

The 39.95km Vargasen stage 12 saw Loeb take the fastest time three-point five seconds ahead of Solberg who was making up for lost time on the final stages of the longest day in Sweden. The Subaru driver had suffered another off , causing more damage to the suspension.

Sainz was third followed by Martin and Gronholm. The Peugeot driver Gronholm damaged the front end of the 307WRC when he spun at a high rate of speed on the stage, no doubt wondering how he got away with it - the entire front body work is gone including headlights!

Tuohino was eighth, dropping him to fourth overall as Solberg took the third position on the leaderboard. Martin had moved to eighth overall five minutes behind the rally leader Loeb. And Loix retired due to an engine failure in the Peugeot.

The difficult leg two of the Swedish Rally ended with the second Hagfors Sprint (1.86km), the first Hagfors ended leg one yesterday. Solberg won the final stage 0.7 seconds ahead of Tobias Johansson in a Ford Focus. The Subaru star kept third overall, now 28.6 seconds ahead of Tuohino in fourth.

Loeb finished the final stage today in fifth and with the sixth position finish of Gronholm, Loeb is the overall leader by 40.6 seconds. Sainz was third placing him now just 0,8 seconds behind Tuohino. Martin tied for sixth with Gronholm and will start tomorrow still in the points in eighth place overall.

The outcome of today showcased what can be expected tomorrow on the final leg's six stages. The main questions might be: Can the current points leader Loeb hang on to win or will the Swedish rally expert Gronholm overtake the Citroen? Will the young driver Tuohino finish fourth or will the experience veteran of Sainz come into play and he overtakes the Focus driver? And then there is Martin - can he hang onto a point finishing position? Citroen can overtake Ford in the manufacturers' standings with top finishes by Loeb and Sainz.

Even though this is only round two, the valuable points one can garner can lead to the 2004 championship.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team