By Justin Palmer
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - A flying second slide by German Felix Loch on Saturday put the defending Olympic luge champion ahead at the halfway stage of the men's singles and a second successive gold firmly within reach.
Loch, who four years ago at the age of 20 became the youngest ever luge gold medalist and has dominated the sport ever since, set a track record of 51.964 seconds and has a combined time of 1.44.149.
He leads Russian veteran Albert Demchenko (1.44.443) and two-time Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler of Italy (1.44.893). Another German, Andi Langenhan, sits fourth.
"After the first run I was briefly annoyed with myself (for finishing second). There were two or three little mistakes and they weren't necessary but then I attacked in the second run," Loch told reporters.
"My first run wasn't that good, I made little mistakes, but the second was almost flawless," he said. "I'm very happy about the time and the speed."
Loch trailed Demchenko, competing in a record seventh Winter Games - a feat he shares with Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai - after the opening run.
But he improved considerably on his second trip down the 1,475 meters course, which drops 129.5m down floodlit 17 curves on the steep slopes above Rosa Khutor, to seize the advantage going into Sunday's final two runs.
"I'm really looking forward to the third run tomorrow," Loch said. "Whoever makes little mistakes has no chance.
"I'm very happy to be the first to start because I can set the benchmark and put pressure on the others."
If Demchenko, 42, and Zoeggeler, who turned 40 last month, can maintain their form on Sunday they will become the first medalists in luge aged 40 or over.
Demchenko, a silver medalist in Turin in 2006 and fourth in 2010, set the pace on the first run despite a slowish start.
Zoeggeler, Olympic champion in 2002 and 2006, is seeking a record sixth medal in luge and most medals in a specific event in any sport at the Winter Games with one silver (1998) and two bronze (1994 and 2010) also in his collection.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)