Rally GBpm: Petter closes

Subaru's Petter Solberg has turned this weekend's Wales Rally GB into a mouthwatering prospect after dominating the afternoon action of the first leg on Friday. Citroen's Sebastien Loeb takes the overall lead overnight, but the Frenchman has seen what was nearly a 20s lead after the second stage whittled down to just 8.4s courtesy of some gutsy driving by Solberg

Rally GBpm: Petter closes

The Norwegian has won this event for the past two years, but it was anyone's guess who would take victory this time out after the event moved from its traditional November slot to an end-of-summer date. Gone, supposedly, would be the slush-fest and ice of previous years and in its place should have been a dry and fast rally.

The skies above Wales had other ideas though with overnight rain and showers throughout the day creating muddy, slippery stages leaving drivers with next to no grip.

Usually on the gravel stages, Loeb, as the first driver out, is always penalised for running through the stages first. For once it was to his advantage as he benefited from a grippier route while those further down the order had to negotiate their way through the resulting mud turfed up by the previous runners.

It didn't take Loeb long to take charge of the event. With a 30-point lead in the championship it was thought that the Citroen ace would be taking it relatively easy this weekend. But by the second stage of the day he had eked out a 19.5s lead over Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm with Solberg a further 10s down on the Finn.

Gronholm and Solberg were quick to respond, though. First the Finn took a stage win on the second run through Brechfa (SS4), then Solberg had his spot in the limelight with a victory on SS5, the second run through Trawscoed.

Going into the service park before the final two stages of the afternoon, Gronholm and Solberg had eaten into Loeb's lead with the Finn 14.8s down while Solberg was a further 4s adrift of Gronholm.

While Solberg continued his impressive form into the afternoon, Gronholm stumbled, his adjustments to the diffs in service failing to produce the increase in speed he so desired.

Solberg continued his charge to take his third stage win on the penultimate test of the day - the 32.58km Rheola test - and move ahead of Gronholm in second spot with Loeb's lead reduced to 12s.

Having mastered the Rheola first time, it came as no surprise that Solberg went on to set the fastest time on the second run through on the final stage of the day reducing Loeb's lead further to just 8.4s. Gronholm retains his third place, 7.5s off Solberg, despite sustaining damage to the left-hand side of his 307 WRC after hitting a gatepost. The Finn is in a relatively safe position for fourth-placed driver Markko Martin (Ford) is 20s down on the Peugeot star.

Martin has been off the pace most of the day struggling with grip. The Estonian was lucky his Rally GB didn't end in the ditch after landing badly coming over a crest on SS5. Team-mate Francois Duval fared much worse, though, after losing his front brakes on the final stage the Belgian dropped two minutes to leave him seventh overall.

Citroen's Carlos Sainz has been unable to match his team-mate stuck in fifth spot a massive 1m48s behind Loeb. The Spaniard suffered with severe understeer in the morning stages but seemed much happier with his car on the two afternoon tests.

Subaru's Mikko Hirvonen, who had been running in eighth for most of the day, has moved up to sixth spot ahead of Duval despite dropping 30s after an off that ripped off his rear bumber and took out a chunk of wheel.

Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera rounds out the top eight but finished the stage three minutes down on Loeb after hitting a rock. The Finn believes the impact damaged his gearbox which left his Peugeot stuck in second gear.

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