Volkswagen steps up the championship pace

Volkswagen's Flying Finn Jouko Puhakka staged a brave fight-back to claim fourth place yesterday (Sun) in the gruelling Pirelli International Rally, second round of the British Championship.

Puhakka's excellent finish moves Volkswagen up to third place in the manufacturers' championship, with Puhakka now joint second in the drivers' standings.

The 33-year-old from Tuusula blitzed the 2-litre opposition on the 11th and final stage of the rally by 20 seconds to record fastest time and consolidate his fourth-place finish behind his 2-litre championship rivals Gwyndaf Evans (Ford), Lars-Goran Andersson (Opel) and Neil Simpson (Ford).

Puhakka, driving the Pirelli-shod and Revolution Wheels/ Trigard/Sony-backed Golf GTI 16V, had earlier posted second-quickest times on the Ogre Hill and Wauchope stages to claw back time lost at the start of yesterday's second leg, when he spun in the fearsome 24-mile Pundershaw stage. A gearbox change prior to this had cost him a minute in road penalties.

Jouko, who was making only his second UK rally appearance, said: "We lost a lot of time in Pundershaw so I knew I had to really attack on the last three stages. The car ran beautifully today..." Steve Bagnall, manager of Volkswagen rally partner team SBG Sport, said: "Jouko really had the bit between his teeth today. We're very pleased with his performance, and that of the car."

There was a good result also for Volkswagen's 'third man' Ashley Blenkhorn, who brought his car home ninth and claimed fifth in the Autosport Amateur Award standings.

Disappointment came early in the rally for Volkswagen's other runner, Tapio Laukkanen, who was sidelined as a consequence of front suspension trouble. Laukkanen - runaway leader of the Finnish Championship - had been posting top-three stage times.

In the manufacturers' title race Ford now has 30 points, Nissan 17 and Volkswagen is third with 16. Puhakka is tied with Justin Dale in second place in the drivers' battle with 28 points; leader Evans has 50 points.

Further backing for Volkswagen's Mobil 1/Top Gear RACMSA British Rally Championship assault comes from Teboil, Siimesvaara, 3M and Brian James Trailers. The third round of the series is the Perth Scottish Rally (May 31-Jun 1). -- Volkswagen rallying