AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- World champion Sebastien Loeb
extended his lead in the New Zealand Rally to almost a minute
after the second day on Saturday.
Leading by 23.1 seconds overnight, the Frenchman won four of
Saturday's eight special stages to surge 51.9 seconds ahead of
former world champion Marcus Gronholm of Finland.
Championship leader Petter Solberg of Norway won three
stages on Saturday to finish the second leg in third, 6.8
seconds adrift of Gronholm.
Loeb's Citroen teammate Francois Duval was fourth.
"It's going better than expected," Loeb said. "The tires and
car are working well together and I'm very pleased with the
reliability of the car.
"I have a better chance of winning than last year. However
we have four stages without service tomorrow and that will be
Loeb won the first two stages north of Auckland to extend
his lead to nearly 36 seconds when Solberg made a sudden move.
The Norwegian, who won the previous two rallies in Sweden
and Mexico, won the third and fourth stages to leapfrog Gronholm
into second and close to within 29 seconds of Loeb.
But just as soon as Solberg made his move, Loeb reasserted
his control. He won the 13th stage as Gronholm overtook Solberg.
"Tomorrow will be a very interesting day. Marcus and I will
have a good fight," Solberg said.
"Of course, I want to win every rally I start, but I can
honestly say that I will be happy to finish third tomorrow."
Loeb blitzed his rivals in the 37-kilometer 14th stage, the
longest of the rally, covering the distance more than 16 seconds
faster than anyone else to open up a 53.8 second lead.
Solberg won the first of the two concluding special stages
at Manukau but was unable to make much time over the 2.1 km
Gronholm won the final stage of the night to cut a fraction
off Loeb's lead going into Sunday's four concluding stages but
said he also had no real hope of catching the Frenchman.
"We had no real problems today, it's just that Seb is going
quicker than us," he said.
"I've got no thought whatsoever of winning this rally. My
problem is to keep Petter behind and that won't be easy."
Perhaps the unluckiest driver on Saturday was Skoda driver
Armin Schwarz. The German hit a gaggle of turkeys on the first
stage, damaging his radiator, and finished the day 11th.
The New Zealand rally is the fourth round of the 16-race
season and comprises 20 stages over 1,128 kilometres.