Ford Martini World Rally Team duo Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae each held top four placings as the second leg of the Monte Carlo Rally ended tonight. Sainz and co-driver Luis Moya powered their Ford Focus World Rally Car into second during another day of demanding driving on icy Alpine mountain roads while McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist climbed to fourth in a second Focus.
Both Sainz and McRae matched the pace of clear leader Tommi Mäkinen over the day's four special stages (this morning's first test was cancelled for safety reasons), Sainz completing the leg just over half a second faster than the world champion and McRae less than a second slower. With one leg remaining, Ford Martini is the only team with two drivers in the top six points-scoring positions.
The highlight of the day came on the penultimate stage when McRae and Sainz were first and second over the tough 34.12km Prunieres - Embrun test. Only Sainz came within 15 seconds of McRae's time, which smashed his own stage record by 41 seconds. Incredibly it was the very same test on which McRae scored the Focus' first stage victory on its debut rally in 1999.
Sainz has grown in confidence with every stage today, the 37-year-old Spaniard quickly adapting to the Focus on his debut with the team. "I've spent the last two days learning about the car and apart from a few areas, I'm pretty happy that I now know how it behaves, at least on asphalt," he said.
"The stages have been quite difficult today because while there's not been a great deal of ice and snow on the roads, there's been enough to catch you out if you're not careful. The conditions have meant that we've chosen dry asphalt racing tyres for all the stages but they're obviously not so good for the ice and that's where we've had to be careful. The conditions have been unusually free of snow and ice and I think it was 1993 since we last completed a whole day of the Monte Carlo Rally without using studded tyres," added Sainz.
His only difficulty came on the last stage when an uncharacteristic mistake from Moya cost the pair 15 seconds. "I was using photocopied pace notes and the copy became difficult to read at one point. I lost my place in the notes for about 500 metres and Carlos lost his rhythm and confidence," Moya admitted.
McRae ended the day in confident mood, following his stage win with second fastest on the final test. "I felt really confident going into those two stages, knowing that I'd been quickest on both last year. We had a clean run on both tests and it's amazing when that happens just how confident you feel," he said.
"We're only 17 seconds behind Toni Gardemeister and we'll be putting plenty of pressure on him tomorrow. I'm feeling fairly happy that if we can avoid problems we'll overtake him and if Carlos maintains his pace it would be great for both Ford cars to be on the podium," added the 31-year-old Scot.
Ford Martini team manager Malcolm Wilson wore a big smile as his cars arrived for the final service at Tallard this evening. "Yes, I have to admit that at the start of the rally I would have settled for this situation at the end of leg two. The great thing is that Carlos has set competitive times throughout the day. He's also given us really good feedback on the Focus and we've made quite a few small modifications that he's suggested.
"I'm also really pleased with Colin's performance today. He's got his confidence back and that was clear for all to see on the final two stages tonight. Now that he's closed the gap on Toni Gardemeister, I'm confident he will overhaul him tomorrow," added Wilson.
News from our Rivals
There was a dramatic start to the leg amid the early morning darkness of Gap. The overnight leaderboard was turned on its head when four of the top 10 cars failed to restart. All three Peugeot 206 cars driven by Gilles Panizzi (third position), Francois Delecour (fifth) and Marcus Grönholm (10th) were sidelined along with second placed Richard Burns (Subaru). The engines of Panizzi, Delecour and Burns refused to start at all and while Gronhölm's car started, it stopped for good minutes later. Peugeot have so far been unable to establish the reason for the retirements while it is believed Burns' engine was flooded with fuel. Leader Mäkinen has enjoyed a troublefree day while Mitsubishi team-mate Freddy Loix has made solid progress, despite losing fifth and sixth gears on the penultimate stage. Toni Gardemeister (Seat) has continued to impress, never falling outside the top four stage times today, while team-mate Auriol, having lost three minutes yesterday, has spent today concentrating on development work. Skoda celebrated its first ever top three time on a world championship rally when Armin Schwarz was third fastest on the penultimate stage.
The final leg brings drivers back from Gap to the finish in Monaco and contains two of the classic stages of the event. The Sisteron - Thoard test, at almost 37km, always offers vastly opposing conditions on either side of the Col de Fontbelle while the last stage of all features the famous Col de Turini, a magnet for spectators. After restarting at 06.00 drivers face five more stages covering 137.55km before the finish in the harbour area of Monte Carlo at 18.46.
Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 45min 24.0sec 2. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 2hr 47min 14.5sec 3. T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Seat Cordoba 2hr 47min 39.8sec 4. C McRae/N Grist E Ford Focus 2hr 47min 56.7sec 5. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 2hr 48min 27.2sec 6. B Thiry/S Prévot B Toyota Corolla 2hr 49min 35.3sec 7. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 2hr 50min 35.6sec 8. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Seat Cordoba 2hr 51min 59.2sec 9. O Burri/C Hofmann CH Toyota Corolla 2hr 52min 19.2sec 10 H Lundgaard/J Anker DK Toyota Corolla 2hr 53min 29.7sec