Loeb slips past Gronholm in New Zealand


MELBOURNE, Reuters

Triple world champion Sebastien Loeb overtook Marcus Gronholm on Saturday’s final stage to grab the outright lead after the second day of the New Zealand Rally.

The Frenchman won the final stage in his Citroen by 5.4 seconds to snatch the lead for the first time and head into the last day with a 1.7 second advantage over Gronholm in a Ford.

Gronholm, who leads Loeb by eight points in this year’s championship with four rounds to go after New Zealand, started the day 13 seconds in front and stretched that lead to 14.9 seconds after winning the seventh stage.

But he lost more than 11 seconds to Loeb on the 31.58 kilometre eighth stage through Franklin after choosing the wrong tyres, before surrendering the lead on the final stage.

“I took tyres that were too soft and didn’t work on the long stage,” Gronholm told reporters.

“The car was like a snake and was sliding a lot. Tyre choice was crucial and it’s hard to make the right decision when the stages are two hours and more than 100km away.

“I have to find something in the car now, and go as fast as I can.”

Mikko Hirvonen ended the day in third place, one minute 10.8 seconds behind Loeb, with his Finnish compatriot Jari-Matti Latvala in fourth position and Chris Atkinson of Australia fifth, both more than two minutes adrift of the leading pair.

Loeb won four of Saturday’s six stages but says he is taking nothing for granted with another seven stages remaining on the last day.

“The gap is not big. It will be a hard Sunday, not a Sunday drive like usual,” the Frenchman said.

“I pushed really hard today and couldn’t do better. I made a few mistakes but we are still on the road — just.”