Loeb on top in New Zealand

2012-06-23 08:36

Auckland - Eight-time world champion Sebastien Loeb defended a fragile lead through the second day of the Rally of New Zealand on Saturday, finishing with a 6.4 second advantage over Citroen team-mate Mikka Hirvonen after 15 of 22 stages.

Loeb started the second day with a four second lead over Hirvonen and kept a fluctuating advantage throughout the day to stay on target for only his third win in New Zealand, among his 71 wins on the World Rally Championship, and his first since 2008.

The Citroen team-mates seem the only drivers still in contention to win the rally with seven stages remaining on the final day. Ford driver Petter Solberg was third, a minute and 35 seconds behind Loeb.

"It's been difficult this afternoon, very slippery and I really don't like that (final) Girls' High School stage," Loeb said. "It's very technical and I lost about eight seconds there this morning.

"It's exciting to have a battle with Mikko and tomorrow I will have to push to keep him behind."

Loeb finished second on the opening stage behind Solberg but ahead of Hirvonen to increase his overall lead to 6.7 seconds. On the second stage of the day, he was fourth and Hirvonen seventh as Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala claimed a stage win.

Loeb held an 8.5 second advantage after the stage but that was slashed to 1.7 seconds when Hirvonen finished second behind Solberg on the 11th stage and Loeb finished back in fifth.

In winning the 12th stage, Loeb rebuilt his lead to 4.8 seconds and after winning the 13th stage from Hirvonen he was 5.4 seconds ahead.

Hirvonen then won the 15th stage to keep pressure on Loeb.

"Here we are two days down and still in a proper fight so I'm having a good time," Hirvonen said.

"One thing is that I don't have any soft tires left and I know Sebastien has a few, so it's going to be difficult to fight against him tomorrow."

Latvala posted two of the fastest stage times of the day but couldn't make up for his misfortune on the first day, when he became entangled in a fence, which cost him more than four minutes on the race leaders.

"Today has been okay," he said. "We have been working with the set-up of the car and the last two stages have been a lot better for me.

"Unfortunately, my situation is not so great at the moment but that's rallying sometimes and I now need to get things together and continue with a positive outlook."

Results on Friday after 15 stages of the 22-stage Rally of New Zealand, seventh round of the World Rally Championships:

1. Sebastien Loeb, France, Citroen, 3 hours, 27 minutes, 51.9 seconds.
2. Mikko Hirvonen, Finland, Citroen, 6.4 seconds behind.
3. Petter Solberg, Norway, Ford, 1 minute, 33.3 seconds.
4. Evgeny Novikov, Russia, Ford, 2.02.5.
5. Ott Tanak, Estonia, Ford, 2.23.8.
6. Thierry Neuville, Belgium, Citroen, 2.47.2.
7. Dani Sordo, Spain, Mini, 3.05.9.
8. Jari-Matti Latvala, Finland, Ford, 4.58.0.
9. Armindo Araujo, Portugal, Mini, 8.21.1.
10. Ken Block, United States, Ford, 10.07.6.