Loeb leads Rally Italia

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> Sebastien Loeb led the Rally Italia on Friday after several of his rivals fell victim to the loose gravel of the Sardinian tracks.

updated: February 25, 2007 10:51 IST
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Day one of the Rally Italia on the Italian island of Sardinia had started badly for reigning world champion Sebastien Loeb, who finished ninth in the first stage. But the Frenchman recovered to lead after the first three stages, following victories in the next two stages. Loeb was helped by the crash of Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm, who had comfortably won the opening stage, but in the latter stages, the Frenchman was masterful. He won two of the remaining three stages, to finish with four wins out of six on day one. That was good enough for a lead of 31.7 seconds over championship leader Petter Solberg. Solberg did his best to stay in touch with Loeb throughout the day and he was able to do that, largely due to the fact that he was one of the few drivers chasing the Frenchman who did not crash. Fighting hard The Norwegian is fighting hard to regain his world title from Loeb and, whilst he wasn't able to record a victory on day one, he will be confident of reducing the 31.7 second gap on day two. Towards the end of the day, it seemed as if Citroen might finish with a "One-Two", with Loeb out in front ahead of team mate Francois Duval, at the completion of stage four. But Duval was one of the many drivers to crash, rolling his Citroen on the penultimate run to hand overall second place to Solberg. Duval was down in 22nd place at the end of the day, nearly 11 minutes behind team mate Loeb. The surprise package of the day was Finland's Mikko Hirvonen, who produced 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. Two-horse race After the disappointment of his earlier crash on stage three, Gronholm showed his fighting qualities by bouncing back to win stage four ahead of Loeb and Duval. Gronholm, though, had plenty of time to make up, following his shunt, and ended the day in seventh place, over two-and-a-half minutes behind Loeb. The Finn's only comfort was that he wasn't the only driver to crash on Friday, with Duval, Chris Atkinson and Gigi Galli all going off the road. Gronholm will need a big effort on Saturday, if he is to make up further ground on the leaders. At this stage, though, it looks to be a "two-horse race" between championship rivals Loeb and Solberg.(AP)