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Aava holds off Loeb after SS3

Urmo Aava, Stobart Ford, Rally Ireland 2009Urmo Aava has completed his first three stages as a Stobart Ford driver in the lead of the Rally Ireland - but Sebastien Loeb is closing on the Estonian.

Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala had led from Aava and Mikko Hirvonen following stage one, with the leading duo having coped far better with the sodden conditions on the extreme wet tyres they had chosen.

But Latvala clipped a rock in the next stage and half-spun, leaving him with two punctures and suspension damage, and forcing him to retire from the leg prior to the start of the next stage.

That allowed Aava to lead a World Rally Championship round for the first time, although by the end of SS3 Citroen driver Loeb had reduced his advantage to just six seconds.

"It's really fantastic, really a dream come true," said Aava. "I have a very good tyre choice, and I think Loeb and Mikko made a mistake (with tyres).

"We have an advantage, it's true, but we have to drive the car. But I don't know how Loeb is going so well with his tyres - he must be crazy."

Loeb was equally amazed by Aava's performance with his tyres, as the extreme compound is usually used on snowy asphalt.

"The conditions are quite incredible, but what is really incredible is that a snow tyre was better this morning in these conditions," said the world champion. "There was so much water."

He said he had been extremely cautious in SS1, where he had been 40 seconds slower than Latvala.

"The conditions are extremely difficult, and in the first stage there was so much aquaplaning," Loeb said. "In these conditions the rally will be very long, so I tried to find a rhythm.

"In the second one there was better grip, so I was able to use my tyres a bit better. I tried hard, and this one was okay."

Hirvonen is now third, 30.9 seconds behind Aava and disappointed that Loeb had jumped ahead of him.

"He's found incredible speed now," Hirvonen admitted. "I don't have any feeling now. We'll go to service and see what we can do. At least we're here now and we'll try to play it better from now on."

Dani Sordo holds fourth in the second factory Citroen, despite losing time with a brief throttle problem in SS3, while Henning Solberg has given Stobart Ford two cars in the top five after a very strong start to his event.

"I have not much experience and testing on roads like this, so I'm just using my head," said Solberg.

Conrad Rautenbach has also impressed by holding an early sixth position - making him by far the best of the Citroen Junior drivers at present. Sebastien Ogier made an extremely cautious start and is two and a half minutes off the pace in 11th, while Chris Atkinson has lost time with windscreen damage and is 12th.

"It was my own fault," he admitted. "I took the light pods off two stages ago and didn't do up the bonnet. It flipped up and smashed the screen. I can't see anything so it's like driving in fog.

"Tricky conditions, obviously not an easy way to start, and we've lost a lot of time with that problem. But we'll forget about that and move on, get on with it and try and set some quick times."

Local drivers Gareth Machale and Eamonn Boland currently complete the points-scorers.

Niall McShea delivered the shock of the morning by taking third in SS1 in his S2000 Proton Satria. He hung on to fifth place after SS2, but unfortunately retired in the next stage.

Aaron Burkart leads the Junior class, despite a trip off the road in Aughnasheelan 1, nine seconds ahead of Hans Weijs, with Yoann Bonato a close third and Martin Prokop struggling with intermittent engine problems in fourth.

Leading positions after SS3:

Pos  Driver             Car      Time
 1.  Urmo Aava          Ford     36:26.0
 2.  Sebastien Loeb     Citroen  +   6.7
 3.  Mikko Hirvonen     Ford     +  30.9
 4.  Dani Sordo         Citroen  +  36.9
 5.  Henning Solberg    Ford     +  55.4
 6.  Conrad Rautenbach  Citroen  +1:26.2
 7.  Gareth Machale     Ford     +1:40.5
 8.  Eamonn Boland      Subaru   +1:52.7
 9.  Matthew Wilson     Ford     +2:05.0
10.  Khalid Al Qassimi  Ford     +2:10.5

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