Following his emphatic victory on the recent Rally of New Zealand, Peugeot-Michelin's Marcus Gronholm has taken a step closer to becoming the latest in a long line of Finnish rallying legends after emerging as early pacesetter in the 2000 Rally Finland.
He took the lead on this morning's opening stage, then drew progressively clear thanks to a series of six fastest times from the day's ten stages to pull out a valuable, if slender 4.9 seconds cushion over Subaru's Richard Burns.
On this high-speed run through the forests around Jyvaskyla, the rally's base, local knowledge has regularly played an important role in the final outcome and this has traditionally enabled local stars to mix it with the World Championship regulars. This explains the presence of Harri Rovanpera in overnight third position at the wheel of his privately entered Toyota-Michelin (run by the Italian specialist Grifone) just ahead of Scotland's Colin McRae.
The Ford-Michelin driver has rarely enjoyed much success on this highly specific event, but his turn of speed after a cautious start - combined with a troublefree day - has left him well in touch with the frontrunners going into Leg 2 this time round.
However, Ford's bid to score its fourth double podium in five events was thwarted when first Carlos Sainz lost ground with an electronic engine management problem and then Solberg, who had been lying a promising 5th overall, crashed out on SS8. Sainz's troubles saw him fall to a lowly 104th when he was forced to stop on SS2 to change a faulty ECU, but a series of on-the-pace times saw him charge back to claim a top-thirty place by the time cars arrived at tonight's parc ferme.
Finland's two four-times World Champions Juha Kankkunen (Subaru) and Tommi Makinen (Mitsubishi-Michelin) follow in 5th and 6th positions respectively. Makinen, who has won his home event on no fewer than five occasions, underlined his intentions to keep battling for a record sixth success with a fastest time on the day's final stage.
Meanwhile, Peugeot's decision to nominate Sebastian Lindholm (Gronholm's cousin!) as its second driver eligible to score WRC manufacturers' points could effectively end up paying dividends at the end of the three-day event.
Lindholm is in seventh position tonight after a safe, paced run as he gets better accustomed to the French car. Ironically, the man he replaces in the 'official' Peugeot squad - François Delecour - is not very far behind the experienced Finn at all. The Frenchman, who led for all the opening day in New Zealand, is currently 8th overall and only 6½ seconds down on his one-off teammate!
Finally, Estonian privateer Markko Martin (Toyota-Michelin) follows in 9th position to make it seven Michelin drivers inside the provisional top-ten.
PATTERN CHOICES. In compliance with the regulation (new for 2000) that states that nominated WRC drivers may use a maximum of two patterns, Michelin's partner teams have made the following choices for Finland. Ford: Michelin Z and Michelin ZE (narrow option). Hyundai and Peugeot: Michelin Z and Michelin ZA. Mitsubishi: Michelin Z and Michelin ZE (wide option).
FASTEST TIMES. Michelin partners have recorded fastest times on seven of today's ten stages with two different drivers (Gronholm 6, Makinen 1), while Peugeot-Michelin's Marcus Gronholm has led the event from Stage 1.
CONDITIONS. The day's early stages included a significant proportion of damp sections but these tended to dry out as the day progressed. However, drivers encountered light showers for the afternoon's final three stages before the rain turned significantly heavier for the short spectator stage which closed the day's action. Air temperatures ranged from a low of 17C to a high of 22C.