Sebastien Loeb won five stages and greatly increased his rally lead today, while his closest rivals Dani Sordo and Petter Solberg spent the day’s six stages constantly swapping places in the other podium places.
Loeb was quick to assert his staus as rally leader at the start of the day. He won stage five by 2.9 seconds from Solberg, but crucially for the Norwegian, he was also 2.9 seconds faster than Sordo, taking second place as a result.
“It was two different tyres each side and it was quite tricky from the start,” said Solberg. “But once I got the temperature in the tyres I kept the speed. Everything can happen on this rally so there will be no crazy pushing. There will be no risks or going over the top. I will keep it steady.”
Perhaps he had been to cautious on the following stage – he dropped 2.2 seconds to Sordo and slipped back down to third place.
“It was okay, no major problem,” said Solberg. “It's just very difficult on the ice. I knew it would be tricky.”
Loeb had no such problems however, and went fastest again. More importantly for Citroen however, Mikko Hirvonen had finally started to make progress, passing both Sebastien Ogier and Evgeny Novikov in SS6.
“This one was a little better,” said the Finn. “It takes a bit of time to find the rhythm and to be confident with the grip level but it's not too bad. I'm learning all the time and for sure I want to finish the rally.”
Francois Delecour suffered in the day’s second stage, a broken intercom meaning he could not hear pacenotes from co-driver Dominique Savignoni. It almost ruined his rally, missing a pace-note and crashing into a wall. However the pair swapped helmets for the following stage which fixed the problem, only losing minimal time to Pierre Campana behind.
“I just couldn't hear his note: after we hit the wall, I was sure that our rally was over,” said Delecour. “I couldn't believe that we had got away with it, and the damage was relatively minor.”
Further up the leaderboard, the fight for second continued in the final morning stage. Loeb was fastest yet again, but Solberg was able to find four seconds over Sordo and reclaimed second position. It seemed that the Ford driver was finally starting to break the Spaniard.
“I pushed really, really hard and did not make any mistakes. The time looks bad but I don't know how,” said Sordo.
The other Sebastien had not given up on the three way battle for fourth, after setting the fourth fastest time through Lamastre to Alboussiere: “On this one it was a fantastic time. We pushed like hell but some places it was still tricky.”
After mid-day service, Sordo was on a mission to reclaim second place. He did what no other driver was able to on Wednesday – beat Loeb to a stage victory, albeit by the rather slender margin of 0.2 seconds. It wasn’t even enough to move up the leaderboard, but he did gain a valuable 2.5 seconds on Solberg.
“I have more feeling with the car, the road is better and I have more confidence with the soft tyre,” he said. “I can push more because I also did some small modification in the shocks and also the gearbox.”
Solberg edged further ahead in the penultimate stage, but on Stage 10, Sordo was 6.1 seconds faster, confirming he would end the day as the best of the rest behind the dominant Loeb. Solberg was at a loss to how the Mini driver was able to make up so much time on the final run of the day.
“There was so much mud in some places and I really struggled,” he explained. “That's the only thing I can think of. We've lost second but it's a long way to go.”
The battle for fourth went from a three way fight to a head t0 head. Ogier had been struggling due to the lower power in his Skoda S2000, but he took himself out of contention for a Top 5 finish by crashing out of the final stage. By now Hirvonen had also moved ahead of Novikov, but only holds a 6 second advantage over the Russian driver going into tomorrow.
Delecour now holds a steady sixth place, while Campana moved up to 7th, after falling behind Ott Tanak for a brief period. Henning Solberg was having a miserable weekend however – after differential problems on the opening day, his engine dropped a cylinder mid-way through SS7, and then had brake problems in the afternoon after a stone became wedged in one of his Fiesta’s calipers. He is at the rear of a chain of ailing Fords, with Martin Prokop 12th, Matthew Wilson 13th and Henning 14th, but over a minute away from gaining any positions.
The barely represented support classes remained as they were at the end of the opening day – Per Gunnar Andersson leading Craig Breen in the SWRC, and Michal Kosciuszko several minutes up on debutant Louise Cook in the PWRC class.
1. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) 2hrs 45mins 56.9secs
2. Dani Sordo (Mini) +01:37.2
3. Petter Solberg (Ford) +01:40.9
4. Mikko Hirvonen (Citroen) +03:40.4
5. Evgeny Novikov (Ford) +03:51.5
6. Francois Delecour (Ford) +05:19.9
7. Pierre Campana (Mini) +06:49.6
8. Ott Tanak (Ford) +07:00.6
9. Per-Gunnar Andersson (Proton) +10:08.9
10. Kevin Abbring (Skoda) +10:31.4