(Reuters) - Sebastien Loeb's hopes of securing a record ninth rallying world title on home soil suffered a minor blow after he finished Thursday's superspecial of the Rally d'Alsace-France two places behind Citroen team mate and only rival Mikko Hirvonen.
Belgian Thierry Neuville clocked a best time of two minutes 44.7 seconds on the 3.63-km dash in the streets of Strasbourg with Frenchman Loeb in seventh place, 1.6 seconds behind.
Finn Hirvonen was fifth, 1.3 off the pace.
In between them was France's Sebastien Chardonnet who produced a stunning performance on his world championship debut.
Loeb, who will only race part of next year's world championship, will win a ninth consecutive title on Sunday if he holds on to a 56-point lead over Hirvonen.
He has a 61-point cushion with three races remaining.
Loeb announced last week that he would not take part in all next year's races. He said earlier on Thursday that he would probably compete in "four or five" races, although nothing had yet been decided.
(Writing by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ed Osmond)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp