Video: Gary Grattan reports from
biggest sporting event in Ulster\'s history', pa: '', ma: 'margin-top: 0px;'}];
A torrid day on Ireland's border back roads may have decided the destiny of the 2007 World championship.
Sebastien Loeb survived it, Marcus Gronholm didn't.
Rally Ireland turned the championship on its head and if Loeb can negotiate his way for two more days the through rain, the mud and some of the most challenging roads he has ever encountered, the Citroen ace will go to the final round, Wales Rally GB, in a fortnight's time with the destiny of the title in his own hands.
The little Frenchman was already in the lead when Gronholm crashed on stage four, Lough Gill. But, ironically, it was Loeb who was struggling at that point.
The rear suspension of his Citroen C4 had been damaged on the first stage of the day, Geevagh, but even so he set the fastest time to wipe out the one-second advantage Gronholm had secured on the super special stage which kicked off the rally at Stormont on Thursday night.
With three more stages before service, Loeb feared he was in trouble. He did concede the lead to team-mate Dani Sordo but he was still ahead of Gronholm when the Finn's Ford Focus slammed sideways into a wall. It was a heavy accident, the impact cracking a stout wall surrounding the lake.
He was briefly knocked unconscious and the rescue services were summoned, bringing the stage to a halt. Gronholm was taken to hospital but it was only precautionary and he was released later.
However, his rally was over and so, almost certainly, is his hold on the World championship lead. He crashed in the previous round in Japan and got a reprieve when Leob followed him into the trees the next day.
The champion has vowed not to repeat that mistake.
But he admitted it was all on a knife-edge. "It is very difficult and I do not have such a good feel with the car," he said. "I have to be careful; I can't afford to make any slips."
Loeb had team-mate Sordo shadowing him in second place, but there will be no challenge from the young Spaniard. Even if he could beat Loeb, he won't – indeed he won't be allowed to.
Sordo was comfortably ahead of the Fords of Jari-Matti Latvala and Mikko Hirvonen. But it was Latvala who was doing no harm to his claims as a possible replacement for the soon-to-retire Gronholm by slotting into third in his Stobart Focus ahead of the official team car of Hirvonen.
Former World champion Petter Solberg was the leading Subaru in fifth place but team-mate Chris Atkinson was a long way down the leaderboard after a day plagued with engine problems. And Xavier Pons was another of the day's casualties, retiring his Subaru with engine failure.
Guy Wilks climbed to sixth place in the Subaru S11 in which Kris Meeke won this year's Ulster Rally, but, sadly, the Dungannon driver was another to fall foul of the horrendous conditions. He crashed in stage seven, the same one as Gronholm second time around, his Subaru dropping 10 feet into a field.
Spectators manhandled the car back onto the road and he continued, only to be held up by another crashed car, and eventually ran over his lateness allowance. Although he was expected to re-join under 'super rally' rules today, his hopes which had been so bright after a stunning performance on the opening stage at Stormont had suffered a devastating blow.
Austrian Manfred Stohl moved into seventh in his Kronos Citroen Xsara ahead of the second Stobart Ford of Matthew Wilson who returned to the overnight halt in Sligo with the words: "Just glad to be here!"
Behind Wilson, big Meath man Tim McNulty led the Irish contenders, ninth in his Subaru, with Gareth MacHale rounding out the top 10 in his Ford Focus. Andrew Nesbitt was in 14th, declaring this "had not been a day for heroics".
Positions after stage 10: 1 Sebastien Loeb (Citroen C4) 1 hr 33 mins 15.9 secs; 2 Dani Sordo (Citroen C4) + 11.2 secs; 3 Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford Focus) + 1 min 28.4 secs; 4 Mikko Hirvonen (Ford Focus) + 1 min 53.2; 5 Petter Solberg (Subaru Impreza) + 2 mins 19.2 secs; 6 Guy Wilks (Subaru Impreza) + 4 mins 13.6 secs; 7 Manfred Stohl (Citroen Xsara) + 4 mins 41.9 secs; 8 Matthew Wilson (Ford Focus) + 6 mins 45.4 secs; 9 Tim McNulty (Subaru Impreza) + 7 mins 55.9 secs; 10 Gareth MacHale (Ford Focus) + 7 mins 59.8 secs.