Marcus Gronholm continued his quest to seek his first 2004 victory on the second day of competition in the Cyprus Rally. The flying Finn will enter the final day of competition tomorrow with a 22.9-second lead over Sebastien Loeb.
The fifth round of the 2004 World Rally Championship has been a tight battle between the top runners. However, problems yesterday and today have left only three main contenders vying for the overall win while others have to settle fighting for the points.
Gronholm held his challengers at bay today in spite of not taking a single special stage win. The Peugeot driver never faltered as he had very consistent times in the five stages ran today: four second-fastest times and one third-fastest.
The second run of the long 30.33km Foini-Koilinia SS11 was canceled due to spectator problems, as the marshals decided that the crowd gathering near a water splash was endangering safety, and stopped the stage immediately after Mikko Hirvonen had passed the splash.
While Peugeot aims for their first win of the season, Citroen's Loeb and Subaru's Petter Solberg swept the specials. The Frenchman took two wins while the Norwegian pocketed three in his comeback run to secure championship points.
SS8 saw many changes as Martin moved from fourth to second overall, Loeb climbed into third overall and Rovanpera's remarkable run ended when the Peugeot faltered with gearbox problems. The opportunity for the one-two Peugeot finish went out the door on a problem that has beset the team this year. Rovanpera limped the ailing car to the final finish to hold fifth overall, more than two minutes behind his teammate.
"It was a real pity that we had the problem," rued Rovanpera at the end of the day. "Although I am disappointed, everything is not yet lost. Tomorrow we have an important job to do, and we have to try and score the maximum points possible."
Citroen's Loeb went on a charge in the SS9 13.33km Galatareia-Pentalia special to nip Gronholm by a mere 1.9 seconds. The Frenchman moved into second overall as Martin faltered finishing 9.5 seconds behind in third. The Frenchman repeated his win on the final special of the day - the second run of the 13.33km Galatareia-Pentalia. Martin ended the day just 10.7 seconds adrift of Loeb.
Solberg, the current champion, moved into a points position by taking the 11.12km Platres-Saittas SS10 - the second run and a repeat of his first special win earlier in the day. Martin and Gronholm tied for second on the stage, Loeb still maintained his overall edge over the Estonian.
"The car felt fantastic in the conditions," Martin explained. "However, about a third of the way through the last stage I hit something on the inside of a bend. I'm not sure what it was, maybe a rock, but the impact bent a steering arm and the car was difficult to drive for the rest of the stage. We gave away about 10 seconds."
Quietly in fourth overall is Carlos Sainz, the Spaniard had a few minor problems but has kept the Citroen in the top five. Subaru's young Finnish driver Hirvonen wrapped up today in sixth overall with his countryman Janne Tuohino in seventh in a Ford Focus.
Gilles Panizzi started the day in eighth and moved up to seventh overall before engine trouble forced the Mitsubishi's retirement on SS9. Teammate Kristian Sohlberg had a similar engine failure on SS2. Both Lancer WRC04's headed home early from Cyprus.
The top three are not just in a battle for the win tomorrow, but for the overall lead in the championship. Martin leads Loeb by just one point with Gronholm in third, one point behind Loeb. If the three take the podium spots, the overall leader may change as the championship fight will move onto Greece for the Acropolis Rally.
And if the first five rallies are an indication of what to expect this season, the final outcome may not be determined until the final stage of Rally Australia in November.