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Loeb takes control in Ireland

Sebastien LoebSebastien Loeb has pulled out a comfortable lead in the Rally Ireland after winning all three afternoon stages, while erstwhile leader Urmo Aava has crashed out.

World champion Loeb had completed the first loop six seconds behind surprise leader Aava (Stobart Ford) having driven very cautiously while running on incorrect tyres in the very wet conditions.

But with the extreme wet Pirellis fitted at the lunchtime service, Loeb dominated the repeat run through the three stages, giving him a 44-second lead over his Citroen teammate Dani Sordo.

"In stage one I didn't want to push - it was too tricky with the wrong tyre choice," he said. "The only thing I could've done there is go off the road, so I didn't want to do that.

"I wanted to take a rhythm and get the feeling, and now it's good. We've been pushing since that first stage, and now with the 'snow' tyre it's going very well."

Aava gradually lost time to the leaders once all the front-runners were on the extreme tyres, and was down to fourth before he went off the road in SS6 and became stuck in a ditch for 20 minutes, putting him out of leg one.

"We spun and went into a ditch, and it just took such a long time to get out," said Aava. "There was a lot of water - it stinks a bit and the car is full of water, so it's probably not good for the electronics."

Sordo also benefited from the change of tyres to claim third from Ford's Mikko Hirvonen in SS4, then move up to second in the next stage as Aava slipped back. The Spaniard has managed to pull away from Hirvonen, establishing a 20-second cushion by SS6.

"It's really good to drive now with this snow tyre, I'm feeling the grip really, really well," said Sordo. "At the moment it's not bad with Mikko, and I'm confident with the car, the tyres and the notes. Everything is perfect."

Having fallen over a minute adrift of Loeb by the end of SS6, Hirvonen admitted that he was now just trying not to let Sordo escape.

"I'll try to fight at least against Sordo, but I stalled the engine on this stage so I'm not going so well," he said. "I overshot a junction and was close to going in a ditch, and I nearly stalled it there."

Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg is now fourth, despite gearbox problems in SS6, while Chris Atkinson looked set to charge into the top five before an accident in the same stage.

Fourth-fastest time in both SS4 and SS5 took Atkinson (Citroen Junior Team) from 12th to seventh, but he completed SS6 with a damaged car and concerned that his co-driver Stephane Prevot might have suffered a minor injury in the incident.

"We just aquaplaned and spun, hit a pole on the outside of the corner, so we've got a bit of damage and Steph's a little bit sore," said Atkinson, who will run seventh if he is able to continue.

The accidents ahead have allowed Atkinson's teammate Conrad Rautenbach to advance to fifth, although the third Citroen Junior car of Sebastien Ogier is now just 4.9 seconds behind, having picked up his pace this afternoon after an over-cautious start.

"It's going better, but we lost too much time this morning," Ogier admitted.

Stobart's Matthew Wilson is up to eighth, with works Ford driver Khalid Al-Qassimi having dropped back from the points fight at present due to a brush with a tree in SS4.

Hans Wiejs has moved into the Junior class lead, by just 1.9 seconds over Aaron Burkart, with Martin Prokop up to third and closing in - the Czech driver now just 22.7 seconds behind Burkart after an afternoon charge.

The first leg continues with a further two stages under darkness later this evening.

Leading positions after SS6:

Pos  Driver             Car      Time
 1.  Sebastien Loeb     Citroen  1h09:35.2
 2.  Dani Sordo         Citroen   +   44.4
 3.  Mikko Hirvonen     Ford      + 1:04.8
 4.  Henning Solberg    Ford      + 3:09.4
 5.  Conrad Rautenbach  Citroen   + 4:18.3
 6.  Sebastien Ogier    Citroen   + 4:23.2
 7.  Chris Atkinson     Citroen   + 4:51.2
 8.  Matthew Wilson     Ford      + 4:56.0
 9.  Gareth Machale     Ford      + 5:05.1
10.  Eamonn Boland      Subaru    + 5:54.5

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