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A thrilling battle is in store on day two of Rally Italia Sardegna after Sebastien Loeb completed Thursday's pair of stages leading Citroen team-mate Mikko Hirvonen by a tight margin of 1.1s.

Loeb, who clinched his ninth FIA World Rally Championship crown on the previous round in France, was fastest on the first run through the 28.14-kilometre Terranova test south of the event base in Olbia. However, he was unable to prevent Hirvonen from going quicker when the stage was repeated in fading light this evening.

“It’s a great battle with Mikko and I was having to push really hard in the stage,” said Loeb. “But it was okay because the car was working well. I knew from the recce the stage was not as dry as in previous years so there was not so much dust.”

The fear of dust had prompted Jari-Matti Latvala to opt to run at the head of the field after the Finn topped the Qualifying Stage times this morning. The Ford pilot reasoned that time lost cleaning the road of the loose surface gravel on stage one would be cancelled out when the stage was repeated due to the fading light and likelihood of dust restricting vision. While it was virtually dark by the time Loeb and Hirvonen - running fifth and sixth on the road respectively - completed the test, there was limited hanging dust.

However, a broken front-left wheel, caused by striking a chunk of bedrock 10 kilometres into stage two, was of more concern to Latvala, who is 42.1s behind leader Loeb in sixth overall.

Petter Solberg is the leading Ford driver in third, although the Norwegian said that his decision not to run with an auxiliary lightpod on stage two had cost him valuable seconds after the stage start was delayed by eight minutes.

With no split times being fed into his Qatar World Rally Team Citroen, Thierry Neuville admitted it was hard to judge his pace on the first stage. But the fourth fastest time on stage two enabled him to climb from sixth to fourth.

Mads Ostberg was fastest after the opening three splits of stage one but contact with a stone and a spin left him with bent steering and a time loss in his Adapta Fiesta. He completed stage two with a broken cross member in fifth.

Chris Atkinson suggested a rear handling imbalance had prevented him from pushing on the opening stage in his MINI John Cooper Works WRC. He’s eighth overnight and planning set-up changes in an effort to catch Evgeny Novikov, who holds seventh for the M-Sport Ford team.

Ott Tanak put his substantial time loss down to his decision to run on hard compound tyres when all of his rivals with the exception of Martin Prokop, opted for the soft compound option. Prokop, meanwhile, reported significant brake wear after the first stage and a strange noise from the rear of his Fiesta on the second run.

Andreas Mikkelsen moved ahead of Volkswagen Motorsport team-mate Sebastien Ogier on stage two after the Frenchman picked up a rear puncture. Luca Pedersoli is 14th on his first run in a Citroen DS3 WRC with Brazilian Paulo Nobre one place behind in his MINI.

Friday’s route covers six stages over a competitive distance of 117.36 kilometres with the action getting underway with the 29.68-kilometre Monte Lerno test at 08:43hrs local time.
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