Loeb way out in front in New Zealand

Updated: April 9, 2005, 2:46 PM ET

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- World champion Sebastien Loeb extended his lead in the New Zealand Rally to almost a minute after the second day on Saturday.

Leading by 23.1 seconds overnight, the Frenchman won four of Saturday's eight special stages to surge 51.9 seconds ahead of former world champion Marcus Gronholm of Finland.

Championship leader Petter Solberg of Norway won three stages on Saturday to finish the second leg in third, 6.8 seconds adrift of Gronholm.

Loeb's Citroen teammate Francois Duval was fourth.

"It's going better than expected," Loeb said. "The tires and car are working well together and I'm very pleased with the reliability of the car.

"I have a better chance of winning than last year. However we have four stages without service tomorrow and that will be tough."

Loeb won the first two stages north of Auckland to extend his lead to nearly 36 seconds when Solberg made a sudden move.

The Norwegian, who won the previous two rallies in Sweden and Mexico, won the third and fourth stages to leapfrog Gronholm into second and close to within 29 seconds of Loeb.

But just as soon as Solberg made his move, Loeb reasserted his control. He won the 13th stage as Gronholm overtook Solberg.

"Tomorrow will be a very interesting day. Marcus and I will have a good fight," Solberg said.

"Of course, I want to win every rally I start, but I can honestly say that I will be happy to finish third tomorrow."

Loeb blitzed his rivals in the 37-kilometer 14th stage, the longest of the rally, covering the distance more than 16 seconds faster than anyone else to open up a 53.8 second lead.

Solberg won the first of the two concluding special stages at Manukau but was unable to make much time over the 2.1 km circuit.

Gronholm won the final stage of the night to cut a fraction off Loeb's lead going into Sunday's four concluding stages but said he also had no real hope of catching the Frenchman.

"We had no real problems today, it's just that Seb is going quicker than us," he said.

"I've got no thought whatsoever of winning this rally. My problem is to keep Petter behind and that won't be easy."

Perhaps the unluckiest driver on Saturday was Skoda driver Armin Schwarz. The German hit a gaggle of turkeys on the first stage, damaging his radiator, and finished the day 11th.

The New Zealand rally is the fourth round of the 16-race season and comprises 20 stages over 1,128 kilometres.