Loeb Leads after Gronholm Rolls

World champion Sebastien Loeb led the Rally of Italy by more than half a minute on Friday after several of his rivals fell victim to the loose gravel of the Sardinian mountain tracks

Loeb Leads after Gronholm Rolls

The French driver, looking for his third victory of the season to move back to the top of the world championship standings, was 31.7 seconds ahead of Norway's Petter Solberg after the first day's six stages.

Championship leader Solberg was one of the few drivers chasing Loeb who did not crash. Marcus Gronholm, Francois Duval, Chris Atkinson and Gigi Galli all went off the road.

Loeb started poorly with ninth place in the first stage of the day then steered his Citroen with his usual cool precision to the top time in four of the remaining five runs of the opening leg.

"I'm very happy with the way that things are going," Loeb said at the halfway stage. "I thought I'd struggle a bit with road position. There's lots of loose gravel and it's quite tricky to push hard."

Gronholm had blasted away the opposition on the opening stage only to roll his Peugeot on the third stage and lost one and a half minutes.

"We were just too quick," the twice world champion said. "We ran out of grip and rolled. It's a real pity. Before the incident everything was going very well."

The damage to his car was only superficial, however, and the Finn rebounded with the quickest time on the first afternoon stage and by the end of the day had risen from 22nd to seventh.

Belgian Duval, Loeb's Citroen team mate, rolled his car on the penultimate run of the day, losing second place to Solberg's Subaru in the process.

Australian Atkinson, in the second Subaru, also crashed on his second go at the 21.46-km Crastazza stage and could take no further part in the day's action.

Finland's Mikko Hirvonen gave an extraordinary performance in a two-year-old version of the Ford Focus to finish the day 27.3 seconds behind Solberg in third place.

His compatriot Harri Rovanpera, a gravel specialist, held fourth place for Mitsubishi ahead of a third Finn in Ford's Toni Gardemeister.

Solberg has 26 points to Loeb's 25.

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Loeb Takes Early Lead in Sardinia
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