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Loeb edges Gronholm to lead Rally of New Zealand

Loeb edges Gronholm to lead Rally of New Zealand

World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb held a tenuous 1.7 second advantage over championship leader Marcus Gronholm after the second day and 11 stages of the 18-stage WRC Rally of New Zealand on Saturday.
Loeb, in a Citroen, won the sixth and final stage on the second day by 5.4 seconds to grab the rally lead for the first time and challenge Gronholm and Ford's narrow hold on the championship.
Finland's Gronholm leads Loeb, of France, by eight points on world standings after 11 of 16 races. Events in New Zealand Sunday, when the rally concludes with its last seven stages, now seem pivotal to the championship's eventual outcome.
Gronholm, in a Ford Focus, started the day 13 seconds ahead of Loeb and saw that margin fluctuate between 3.6 and 14.9 seconds as he and the Citroen driver engaged in a head-to-head struggle through the day's first five stages.
Loeb made a sound tire choice early in the day and won the first, 17.21 kilometer (10.6 mile) stage by 3.1 seconds from Gronholm to trim the Finnish driver's rally lead to 9.9 seconds.
"We are running soft tires. I am concerned about this because Loeb has hard tires on," Gronholm said as the stage ended.
Gronholm put those concerns to rest temporarily when he won the second stage by five seconds to build his margin after seven special stages to 14.9 seconds. Loeb finished fourth.
"We were on hard tires and that made the stage very difficult and I lost a lot of time on Marcus," Loeb said.
Loeb was still on hard tires through the 31.57 kilometer (19.5 mile) third stage of the day which he won by 11.3 seconds to slash Gronholm's margin to 3.6 seconds, his slimmest advantage to that time.
"For that stage it was a good tire choice," Loeb said.
Gronholm, running soft tires on the winding Franklin stage, found handling difficult.
"The tires are too soft," he said. "The car was like a snake all the time."
Gronholm edged Loeb by 0.4 seconds on the fast, 3.1 kilometer (1.9 mile) super special stage at Mystery Creek to open a 4 second gap on his French rival. Loeb trimmed that to 3.7 seconds when he won the rally's 10th stage, over 31.92 kilometers (19.8 miles), by 0.3 seconds.
Loeb swept into the rally lead when he completed the day's 32.64 kilometer (20.2 mile) final stage in 16 minutes, 59.8 seconds to beat Gronholm by 5.4 seconds.
He held a 1.7 second margin over his Ford rival by the end of the day, turning the rally into a private contest between the championship pacesetters.
"The gap is not big. It will be a hard Sunday, not a Sunday drive like usual," Loeb said.
"I pushed really hard today and couldn't do better. I made a few mistakes but we are still on the road...just."
There was a further 1 minute, 10.8 seconds back to Ford's Mikko Hirvonen in third place. Jari-Matti Latvala moved up to fourth Saturday, 2 minutes, 2.3 seconds behind Loeb and 10.5 seconds ahead of Chris Atkinson of Australia.


Updated : 2021-05-07 00:48 GMT+08:00