Day 2: Loeb unstoppable

Despite suggesting that he may start driving more conservatively after the retirement of his Citroen team-mate Francois Duval, reigning champion Sebastien Loeb ended leg two of the Monte Carlo Rally by setting another fastest stage time and extending his lead to nearly two minutes

Day 2: Loeb unstoppable

In stark contrast to the carnage of this morning's stages, the afternoon sections saw no retirements amongst the leading cars.

Loeb barely had any competitive running before the lunchtime service halt, being awarded notional times for SS6 and 7 after Duval and Armin Schwarz's accidents disrupted the stages.

These incidents delayed proceedings and meant that the day's final stages would be run in gathering darkness and on an increasingly icy surface. It might have been expected that - with a 1m38s advantage in his pocket - Loeb would play it safe in these difficult conditions, but instead he went fifth fastest on SS8 and then blasted through SS9 a full 8s quicker than his nearest rival.

"I think the gap is enough, but there is still very big pressure," said Loeb, who looks set for his third consecutive Monte Carlo victory. "There will be a lot of ice and snow on the Turini tomorrow so we have to be careful there. Maybe there is more pressure when I'm thinking about the hat-trick."

Mitsubishi's Gilles Panizzi has been having a very encouraging Monte Carlo Rally, and was Loeb's closest challenger this afternoon. His fastest time on SS8 and second quickest run on SS9 helped to bring the Frenchman into the podium fight, which is still terrifically competitive. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot 307), Toni Gardemeister (Ford Focus) and Petter Solberg (Subaru Impreza) are blanketed by just 22.4s in second-to-fourth positions and have been swapping times all afternoon, while Panizzi's hard-charging performance has brought him to within 27s of Solberg.

"This is a fantastic result for the mechanics and for the whole team," said Panizzi after topping the SS8 times. "It's been such a long time since they had some success. It's very important for the spirit and confidence between everybody.

"I have a very strong feeling in the car and I am pushing as hard as I can."

Markko Martin, still short of acclimatisation time in his new Pirelli-shod Peugeot 307, is an increasingly distant sixth. The Estonian is struggling to get used to the dimensions of his new machine and was lacking in confidence in the narrow confines and darkness of the final stage. He remains ahead of Ford's Roman Kresta and Skoda star Alex Bengue. The latter impressed again by going third quickest on SS8, proving that his first ever WRC fastest stage time (on SS6 this morning) was certainly not a fluke. A time-consuming error on SS9 brought Bengue back down to earth however, and harmed his chances of snatching seventh from Kresta.

The icy conditions turned the JWRC battle inside out, as reigning champion and class leader Per-Gunnar Andersson crashed his Suzuki near the end of the final stage. With Kris Meeke losing 25s with a spin and Guy Wilks also shunting, Andersson's team-mate Kosti Katajamaki now leads the category by 13.3s from Meeke.



Sebastien Loeb (Citroen Xsara), 2h50m34.8s
Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot 307), 2h52m29.5s
Toni Gardemeister (Ford Focus), 2h52m43.1s
Petter Solberg (Subaru Impreza), 2h52m52.3s
Gilles Panizzi (Mitsubishi Lancer), 2h53m19.9s
Markko Martin (Peugeot 307), 2h54m19.1s
Roman Kresta (Ford Focus), 2h54m58.9s
Alexandre Bengue (Skoda Fabia), 2h55m32.9s
Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi Lancer), 2h56m45.0s
Manfred Stohl (Citroen Xsara), 2h57m48.5s

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Day 2 am: Chaos in Monte

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