Mon, Nov 19, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Sebastien Loeb extends his lead in Rally Ireland

AP , SLIGO, IRELAND

Sebastien Loeb drives his Citroen during Rally Ireland in Sligo, Ireland, on Saturday.

PHOTO: EPA

Defending world rally champion Sebastien Loeb extended his lead on Saturday in the Rally Ireland with his rivals struggling with rain, muddy roadways and dim light.

The Frenchman won four of six stages in an overall time of 2 hours, 30 minutes, 35.2 seconds in what he said was "a perfect day." His Spanish teammate, Dani Sordo, was 59.3 seconds back in second place.

"The car is going perfectly and we really had no mistakes today and [took] no risks," Loeb said.

Loeb came into this week's penultimate race in the World Rally Championship trailing Marcus Gronholm. But the Finn crashed out on Friday, and if Loeb wins he will have 110 points to Gromholm's 104 and be favored to win his fourth-straight championship.

Most of Saturday's racing took place in the boggy lakeland of County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, where hazy, drizzly conditions made it tough for drivers to see. Yesterday's final four stages return to the Republic of Ireland.

Gronholm conceded that Loeb was now favorite to retain the title in Wales on Dec. 2.

"It will be hard to lift the driver's championship if Sebastien Loeb wins this weekend," said Gronholm, who won in 2000 and 2002 and is expected to retire soon.

Gronholm said his crash on a lakeside bend near the end of the fourth stage came after he braked too hard on a slippery patch of road.

"I managed to turn it sideways before hitting a stone wall hard," he said. "It was a big impact because the car stopped immediately. Both wheels on my side of the car were pulled off. My neck is sore but otherwise I'm OK."

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