World champion Sebastien Loeb was on course for a record-equaling sixth win in a World Rally Championship season yesterday after early leader Marcus Gronholm crashed out of Rally Australia.
Gronholm won five of the opening nine stages on Thursday and Friday, and had a 21.4-second buffer on Loeb until he lost control of his Peugeot 3km into the first of Saturday's 10 stages and crashed off the gravel road.
Citroen driver Loeb assumed the lead at the season-ending event and built a gap of 1 minute, 7.7 seconds over Peugeot driver Harri Rovanpera of Finland with five stages remaining.
Ford's Francois Duval was in third place and Finn Mikko Hirvonen was the leading Subaru in fourth place.
Loeb said Gronholm's demise made the race easier for him.
"I was told to slow down as Marcus had stopped," the Frenchman said. "Why try now when there are no cars to compete against?"
Loeb secured the 2004 drivers' title at last month's Tour of Corsica and now has a chance to equal the World Rally Championship record of six wins in a season set by Didier Auriol in 1992.
The 16th and final race of the season has taken its toll on the big names. Gronholm, champion in Australia from 2000-2002, joined 2003 world champion Petter Solberg and Estonia's Markko Martin among drivers who've already ended up out of contention.