Hirvonen stays leader, Loeb gets closer to fifth title

After two days of racing in Japan, Finn driver Mikko Hirvonen (Ford) remains on top of the standings while France's Sébastien Loeb (Citroën) holds on to the third place which would give him a record fifth straight world title.



SAPPORO - Citroen's Sebastien Loeb closed in on a record fifth straight world title by taking a firm grip on third place in the Japan Rally on Saturday.


The Frenchman, who will win his fifth crown with a podium finish on Sunday, ended the second leg over a minute and a half clear of Subaru's Chris Atkinson in fourth.


Ford's Mikko Hirvonen leads from team mate Jari-Matti Latvala after the two Finns increased their advantage over Loeb from Friday's chaotic first leg.


Loeb leads Hirvonen by 14 points in the title race with one event left after Japan.


"It's not a comfortable position yet but I hope we can keep third," said the Frenchman. "At the moment it looks too difficult to try and beat the Fords but I have to keep pushing.


"The most important thing at the moment is to try to secure my title. It's too risky for me to try to catch Jari-Matti now."






Loeb, who has won 10 times this season, is nearly a minute behind Hirvonen but his title chances were boosted when Subaru's Petter Solberg retired after losing a wheel.


"I went into a ditch and then 'boom', it ripped off the rear wheel and that was it," said the Norwegian.

Hirvonen survived an early scare when he was forced to slam on the brakes after two deer skipped across the road in front of his speeding car.


"We've had no problems and we're still in the lead," he said. "I'll continue to push hard and try to increase the gap over Jari-Matti because this victory isn't in my pocket yet."


Saturday's second leg was relatively trouble-free after a high-speed crash involving Ford driver Francois Duval triggered mayhem on Friday.


Duval's co-driver Patrick Pivato was injured in the spill. Ford said he was in a stable but critical condition after surgery to repair a broken tibia and fractured pelvis.


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