Loeb leads Acropolis Rally

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> The Acropolis Rally of Greece got underway on Thursday with a new first for the World Rally Championship.

updated: February 25, 2007 10:52 IST
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The Acropolis Rally of Greece got underway on Thursday with a new first for the World Rally Championship. A WRC Special Stage was contested inside a venue for the first time, with a head-to-head race thrilling the crowds in the Athens Olympic Stadium. Reigning WRC champion Sebastien Loeb, who is seeking a fifth consecutive rally victory in Greece, won the first of the weekend's 19 stages ahead of Mark Higgins in second place and Markko Martin in third. But Friday started badly for Loeb who could only manage fifth on Special Stage two and the Citroen driver followed that with a disappointing 14th on SS 3. But he would finish inside the top three in the next four stages, including first-place finishes on SS4 and SS7, to end the day with a 6.1-second overall lead. Crucial seconds Petter Solberg won the Acropolis Rally in 2004, but the Norwegian lost crucial seconds after narrowly evading a serious crash on SS2. The 2003 WRC champion steered his Subaru to second place on SS3 and further redeemed himself with a sixth and a seventh on the next two Special Stages. But 18th and 15th-place finishes on the final two Special Stages left Solberg in a lowly 14th place overall, more than three minutes behind Loeb. Marcus Gronholm had moved into an early overall lead with a first place on SS2. The Finnish Peugeot driver then won SS5 and it looked as though that would be enough to seal the overnight lead. But Gronholm couldn't match Loeb's peerless performance on SS7, finishing 28.6 seconds behind the Frenchman, and he slipped down into second place overall. Last appearance Two-time former champion Carlos Sainz insists that the 2005 Acropolis Rally will be his last WRC appearance. The Spaniard has come out of retirement to replace Citroen's Francois Duval, but he was still able to win SS6 on Friday. That leaves him in third place overall, 14 seconds behind Loeb. Finland's Mikko Hirvonen briefly threatened to steal all of the headlines. Driving a privateer Ford, the former Subaru works driver led the way after consecutive wins on Special Stages three and four. (AP)