Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist will start tomorrow's final leg of the Rally Argentina in the midst of a thrilling three-car battle for supremacy. The Britons ended the second leg of this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship in third overall in their Ford Focus World Rally Car - just 12 seconds covering the tussling trio.
After seven more gravel special stages today covering 131km, McRae and Grist lie just 2.7sec behind Marcus Grönholm, leader for much of the day. The Finn is only 9.3sec adrift of current leader Richard Burns.
Conditions could not have been more different from yesterday. Drizzle during the morning and heavier rain in the afternoon signalled the end of the glorious sunshine so prevalent for the past few days. And the faster and more flowing roads around Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, in the heart of the region's lake district, provided a picturesque arena for the top drivers' furious battle.
McRae's only problem came on stage 13 at a river crossing which was much rougher than during the morning run at the test. Leaving the water the back of his Focus kicked up high into the air before the car landed heavily on its nose.
The impact heavily damaged the front, especially the front protective bodywork around the radiator, and ripped the back of the sump guard from its mountings, leaving it dragging along the ground. McRae had to complete the rest of the stage and the next 18km test before reaching the sanctuary of the service park, doing well to drop only around 10 seconds to his rivals.
"We were lucky not to have a really big accident," said the 31-year-old Scot. "I thought we were going to have a horrific end over end roll but although there was quite a bit of damage it didn't slow us too much and the mechanics did a great job to completely repair the car. The team will virtually rebuild it tonight ahead of some of the roughest stages in the championship tomorrow. If it's dry I think we can still take the fight to Richard and Marcus."
The day was less kind to overnight leaders Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya, their rally ending in a high-speed accident 600m from the end of this morning's second stage. "It was a new stage so I didn't know the road well," said 38-year-old Sainz. "I came over a crest flat out in fourth gear and I thought the car would jump. It didn't and as a result I took the wrong line into the next left-hand corner and positioned the car too close to the inside. I hit the guardrail head on and the impact wrecked the front of the car.
"I'm disappointed to have retired from such a strong position but it was my mistake. And when you walk away unhurt from an accident like that you can never be unhappy," he added. Sainz was so concerned about the hazard that he stood by the road to warn following drivers and McRae admitted that had his team-mate not crashed there, someone else would probably have done so.
Ford team-mates Petter Solberg and Phil Mills lie seventh, despite rolling their Focus at exactly the same spot as McRae hit problems. In a virtual carbon copy of McRae's incident, Solberg's car landed on its nose and bounced several times before toppling sideways into a ditch. Spectators quickly righted the car and the Norwegian driver continued having lost around 40 seconds but with minimal damage to the car.
"The car has felt much better today and I'm learning all the time," said Solberg. "I'll keep the same speed tomorrow but of course everyone wants points and I'm only one position away from a points-scoring finish."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson said: "Colin's in a good position and tonight we'll get both cars fully re-prepared for tomorrow's demanding leg. We were lucky not to lose both Colin and Petter in major accidents at the same point. Colin's incident was probably the more severe but Petter paid a greater price by rolling. We're disappointed to lose Carlos as we had two cars in strong points positions."
News from our Rivals
Today has belonged to Richard Burns (Subaru), the championship leader posting fastest time on all but one of today's stages to climb from an overnight sixth into the lead. Behind the top trio, Juha Kankkunen (Subaru) and Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) have traded places all day, Kankkunen ending the leg just 7.2sec ahead of his fellow Finn. Apart from Sainz there have been no other major retirements, with few serious problems for the top drivers. However, Alister McRae (Hyundai) dropped around 90 seconds with a broken front driveshaft and team-mate Kenneth Eriksson, forced to fit a new unheated windscreen after rock-throwing spectators smashed it last night, has struggled with visibility problems after it misted up throughout the day.
The final day promises to be the roughest and toughest of all, as the event moves into the mountain region of Traslasierra, west of Cordoba. The stages are rockier than anything faced so far with huge boulders lying in wait to trap the unwary, especially on the final stage of all, the famous El Condor - Copina. The drivers leave Cordoba at 06.15 to tackle six stages totalling 126.07km in a total route of 563.71km before returning to the city's soccer stadium for the finish ceremony at 16.50. <pre> Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 2hr 45min 59.1sec 2. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 46min 08.4sec 3. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 2hr 46min 11.1sec 4. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 2hr 46min 31.1sec 5. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 46min 38.3sec 6. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 2hr 49min 20.6sec 7. P Solberg/P Mills N Ford Focus 2hr 52min 05.3sec 8. A McRae/D Senior GB Hyundai Accent 2hr 52min 16.0sec 9. G Pozzo/R Amelio Ortiz RA Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 57min 42.7sec 10 G Trelles/J Del Buono ROU Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 57min 46.6sec