, Daniel Elena and their Citroën Xsara WRC have successfully maintained their lead at around the half-minute mark at the end of a day marked by heavy rain. Their closest rival is no longer Petter Solberg, however, since Marcus Grönholm took over second spot at the end
François Duval and Sven Smeets are as concentrated as ever and continue to figure in 7th place, just ahead of Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor in the first of the two privately-entered, Kronos Racing-run Xsaras. A small off on SS12 saw Xavi Pons and Carlos del Barrio drop outside of the top-ten.
Back on the menu since last year after being dropped in 2002 and 2003, the loop in the Calamuchita Valley region to the south featured a combination of fast stages (the average speed of SS13 was 117 kph) and plenty of jumps which launched the cars spectacularly into the air, two hallmarks typical of… Finland. "This is Marcus Grönholm territory," said Sebastien Loeb
. "Last year he was very quick here. I was a bit too much on the defensive on today's first stage and I span in ‘Amboy' (SS13). It was a deeply-rutted fourth-gear left-hander. I thought I could get the rear of the car to squat in the ruts, but it was the front end which locked, sending the car into a spin." The Citroën driver lost exactly 10 seconds in the incident but dropped just 7.4s in the stage. "When I got going again, I pushed really hard to make up for the lost time!"
Seb returned to the Villa Carlos Paz service park with a 25.2s cushion after upping his pace to counter Marcus Grönholm's challenge in the short loop that ended the day. The reigning World Champion won two of the group's three stages to increase his lead by… 1.4s! "It's been a tough leg, and it's not over yet. We will have to carry on pushing hard tomorrow when the conditions will be much rockier. We will also be competing at altitude. It promises to be an interesting day."
"In the last stage," says François Duval, "it was like driving on ice, but we came through it without a scratch. It's been a good day. I took it easy in the narrow, rough portions. Despite the pressure, my confidence is coming back bit by bit. And I'll need plenty of confidence for tomorrow's leg which is likely to be very delicate indeed."
"Seb has put up an excellent fight," recognises Guy Fréquelin. "He lost a little time in the morning, and then more time on the day's final stage when he went wide in a very muddy left-hander. But that's the sort of incident that is par for the course when the fight gets as fierce as this. It's not going to be easy tomorrow."
The uncustomary format of the awesome, if very short final leg effectively features two passes through the legendary El Cóndor stage which starts at an altitude of 2,200 metres, plus a visit to the no less classic Giulio Césare test. The rally concludes with two attempts at the Complejo Pro-Racing super- special.
Press release Citroën Sport