Frenchman Sebastien Loeb has cut Mikko Hirvonen's lead to a little over five seconds going into the last two stages of Leg Two.
World champion Sebastien Loeb is within striking distance of the lead of Repco Rally New Zealand after turning in a storming drive to reduce Mikko Hirvonen’s overnight lead to 5.3 seconds.
Ford driver Hirvonen started the day 27.8 seconds ahead of Loeb after the Frenchman was slapped with a 30-second penalty yesterday afternoon for clocking in to the start of Special Stage 6 three minutes late.
Loeb had picked up the penalty after he couldn’t get his Citroen C4 WRC to start 30 seconds before he was due to clock in to the high-speed test. By the time he got it going, he was three minutes late.
He said last night that almost 28 seconds was a big gap to close.
But on this morning’s first test, SS6 at Port Waikato, he clawed back 7.5 seconds from Hirvonen whose pace was hampered by running first on the road and sweeping the surface of gravel.
In fact Norwegian Henning Solberg, who was running 12th on the road in his privateer Ford Focus RS, won that stage.
Loeb, running second on the road, won the next test, Possum, and cut the gap to 17.2 seconds.
He was second-fastest on SS8, and Hirvonen’s lead to 6.8 seconds. Henning Solberg won the Mystery Creek super special, the final special stage in the first part of Leg Two, with Loeb again second.
Significantly he had cut Hirvonen’s lead to 5.3 seconds with two long stages to run this afternoon at Te Akau South and Te Akau North. The lead is definitely in his sights.
The question facing Loeb now is whether he wants to run first on the road in tomorrow’s stages which he would have to do if he ends the day in the rally lead. Then he would be back as the road-sweeper, a role he played during Leg One yesterday.
The top order after this morning’s four stages is: Hirvonen; Loeb (5.3s behind); Jari-Matti Latvala (14.8s behind); Dani Sordo (26.5s behind); Francois Duval (1m 42.0s behind); Urmo Aava (2m 45.9s).