Citroën's Sébastien Loeb cruised to victory in Rally New Zealand on Sunday. The defending champion's closest competitor, Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm, finished almost 50 seconds behind the Frenchman.

Citroën's Sébastien Loeb cruised to victory in Rally New Zealand on Sunday. The defending champion's closest competitor, Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm, finished almost 50 seconds behind the Frenchman.


Loeb said improvements to the Xsara WRC and superior tyres from Michelin gave him the edge he needed to beat double champion Gronholm and Subaru's Petter Solberg.


CARtoday.com reported on Friday that Loeb had seized the lead on the fourth stage and set the quickest times on SS5, SS6 and SS7 to lead Gronholm by 23,1 seconds at the end of Leg One. By the end of Leg Two, Loeb was 51,9 seconds ahead of his Finnish rival. Although Gronholm opened the Sunday leg with the fastest time in the first three stages, Loeb underlined his superiority with a comprehensive and seemingly effortless 10-second victory on the final stage of the rally, when he had no real need to push.


The reigning champion - who won the Monte Carlo season-opener - is now back up to second in the drivers' points standings, one point behind Sweden and Mexico winner Solberg, after problems in those two events.


"It's been a tough event," said the Frenchman, "I'm pleased with the improvements the team has made to the car. If you look at where we were in New Zealand last year compared to this year, it's clear to say that a lot of progress has been made, especially on the suspension and engine.


"Michelin also had a new hard compound tyre this year which worked very well - on the second run through the stages, when they were cleaner, that's where the tyres worked well. Before the rally I was a little worried about the title situation, but now I'm a lot calmer, being one point behind," he added.


Gronholm brought his Peugeot home second, nearly 19 seconds ahead of Solberg. Like Loeb, Gronholm also made a jump in the drivers' standings, and the Finn is now fourth.


"Before the rally started I thought I could win, but this turned out not to be possible," said Gronholm. "I am reasonably happy to finish second. I had a big fight with Petter, but I was quite confident I could keep him behind me."


Loeb's young team-mate, Francois Duval, held on to finish fourth, followed by Peugeot's Markko Martin, who dropped from second to third in the championship standings. The Estonian holds a three-point lead over his team-mate, Gronholm, however.


"I have made a big step in understanding how to drive the 307 WRC on this rally, but I think I discovered it a bit late. I tried changing my driving style during the last afternoon of the rally and it seemed to work well," said Martin.


Martin and Ford's Toni Gardemeister was only 7,2 seconds apart in the final overall time. Martin was adrift of the new Focus driver by 4,3 seconds, but his final charge in SS20 gave him the edge to beat the Finn in the overall standings.


"I chose harder compound tyres for the final stages but because there were no new tyres left in our allocation, I had to use ones with an older construction," said Gardemeister. "The grip wasn't quite as good as the new version. I couldn't keep Markko behind me. I'm disappointed not to finish fifth, I would have been much happier if I could have finished in front of him."


After winning two stages in Leg One, Australian Chris Atkinson found it a bit harder going and ended the event seventh.


"We have achieved two more goals in our careers this weekend, to win a stage in the WRC and also score championship points in our WRC campaign," the Subaru Impreza driver said.


Gigi Galli (Mitsubishi), Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) and Manfred Stohl (Skoda) rounded out the top ten finishers.


Loeb said improvements to the Xsara WRC and superior tyres from Michelin gave him the edge he needed to beat double champion Gronholm and Subaru's Petter Solberg.


CARtoday.com reported on Friday that Loeb seized the lead on the fourth stage and set the quickest times on SS5, SS6 and SS7 to lead Gronholm by 23,1 seconds at the end of Leg One. By the end of Leg Two, Loeb was 51,9 seconds ahead of his Finnish rival. Although Gronholm opened Sunday with the fastest time in the first three stages, Loeb underlined his superiority with a comprehensive and seemingly effortless 10-second victory on the final stage of the rally, when he had no real need to push.


The reigning champion - who won the Monte Carlo season-opener - is now back up to second in the drivers' points standings, one point behind Sweden and Mexico winner Solberg, after problems in those two events.


"It's been a tough event," said the Frenchman, "I'm pleased with the improvements the team has made to the car. If you look at where we were in New Zealand last year compared to this year, it's clear to say that a lot of progress has been made, especially on the suspension and engine.


"Michelin also had a new hard compound tyre this year which worked very well - on the second run through the stages, when they were cleaner, that's where the tyres worked well. Before the rally I was a little worried about the title situation, but now I'm a lot calmer, being one point behind," he added.


Gronholm brought his Peugeot home second, nearly 19 seconds ahead of Solberg. Like Loeb, Gronholm also made a jump in the drivers' standings, and the Finn is now fourth.


"Before the rally started I thought I could win, but this turned out not to be possible," said Gronholm. "I am reasonably happy to finish second. I had a big fight with Petter, but I was quite confident I could keep him behind me."


Loeb's young team-mate Francois Duval held on to finish fourth, followed by Peugeot's Markko Martin, who dropped from second to third in the championship standings. The Estonian holds a three-point lead over his team-mate, Gronholm, however.


"I have made a big step in understanding how to drive the 307 WRC on this rally, but I think I discovered it a bit late. I tried changing my driving style during the last afternoon of the rally and it seemed to work well," said Martin.


Martin and Ford's Toni Gardemeister was only 7,2 seconds apart in the final overall time. Martin was adrift of the new Focus driver by 4,3 seconds, but his final charge in SS20 gave him the edge to beat the Finn in the overall standings.


"I chose harder compound tyres for the final stages but because there were no new tyres left in our allocation, I had to use ones with an older construction," said Gardemeister. "The grip wasn't quite as good as the new version. I couldn't keep Markko behind me. I'm disappointed not to finish fifth, I would have been much happier if I could have finished in front of him."


After winning two stages in Leg One, Australian Chris Atkinson found it a bit harder going and ended the event seventh.


"We have achieved two more goals in our careers this weekend, to win a stage in the WRC and also score championship points in our WRC campaign," the Subaru Impreza driver said.


Gigi Galli (Mitsubishi), Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) and Manfred Stohl (Skoda) rounded out the top ten finishers.