Colin McRae and Nicky Grist crashed out of the Rally of Great Britain during today's second leg when seemingly on course for a record-equalling fourth victory in their Ford Focus World Rally Car. The demise of the Ford Martini pairing, comfortable leaders of this final round of the FIA World Rally Championship, left Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya to head the team challenge in third with one leg remaining of this rain-lashed four-day event.
The British pair calmly extended their overnight advantage to more than 45 seconds by posting fastest time on two of this morning's three speed tests in the muddy mountain forests of south Wales. It took their stage victory tally on the event to four but their hopes of matching legendary Finn Hannu Mikkola's four wins on the rally ended on the very next special stage in Rheola Forest.
The 31.47km test had been used earlier in the day when McRae and Grist were fastest but an accident 1.5km after the start spelt retirement.
"The road was in a pretty rough condition after being used this morning and we came to a right-hand bend which was badly rutted," said 32-year-old McRae. "The car just bounced out of the ruts and rolled over into the undergrowth on the outside of the corner."
"It ended up on its wheels and we were moving again within about 30 seconds but the radiator had been damaged in the accident. There was a long way to go to the end of the stage and although we tried to carry on the radiator damage was too great. So to prevent the engine seizing completely we pulled off after another three kilometres."
"It's been a disappointing end to the season for us. We were determined to end the year on a high note and we felt comfortable with the lead we had. The Focus was running really well and I think it would have been difficult for anyone to catch us," added Grist.
Sainz and Moya spent the entire day engaged in a huge struggle with Tommi Makinen, the duo swapping places on a regular basis. As they returned to the rally base in Cardiff after today's five forest stages and a repeat of the super special stage in the heart of the city which started the rally two days ago, just 0.3sec split the duo.
"We made several minor alterations to the suspension on the Focus to perfect the handling and I'm now happy with the settings," said 38-year-old Sainz. "Like yesterday, it's not been easy driving quickly in such slippery conditions."
"All the time we've been fighting to keep the car on the road while pushing as hard as we can. I couldn't have driven any harder without going off the road. Colin set a strong pace and we couldn't match his times but he was competing on home ground and it's his rally."
Tapio Laukkanen and Kaj Lindstrom, driving a third Ford-entered Focus, lost more than 30 minutes after sliding off the road on the day's opening 26.47km Rhondda stage. "Our front wheel dug into a ditch and dragged us into the banking. We had to find spectators and marshals to lift us out of the mud and back onto the road," said Laukkanen. The Finns continued to set top 10 stage times and by this evening had climbed from 82nd to 38th.
British television presenter Penny Mallory leads the ladies' category in her Focus World Rally Car, the 34-year-old from St Albans driving so hard that her hands are covered in blisters. She lies 37th overall.
News from our Rivals
Richard Burns (Subaru) established himself at the top of the leaderboard after McRae's retirement, the Englishman the only driver other than McRae to set fastest times. But with championship rival Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) second, the drivers' world title would go to the Finn if positions remain unchanged. Tommi Makinen (Mitsubishi) was lucky to survive numerous off-road excursions, the worst coming on the Rheola stage this morning when he hit a tree. Didier Auriol (Seat) slipped down the leaderboard after daylong engine problems while team-mate Gwyndaf Evans retired with clutch failure in Rhondda. Alister McRae (Hyundai) had to use co-driver David Senior's T-shirt to plug a hole in his car's sump after the Resolfen test. It worked and the Scot was able to continue, ending the day in 11th.
Just three stages lie in wait on the final leg. After a 06.00 re-start, drivers will tackle two stages in Brechfa Forest before the final test in Margam where the roads will be rocky and rutted after being used today. They face 84.19km of competition before returning to Cardiff for the finish at 15.56.
<pre> Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 2hr 51min 46.0sec 2. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 52min 05.9sec 3. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 2hr 53min 05.9sec 4. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 53min 06.2sec 5. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 2hr 53min 20.7sec 6. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 2hr 53min 33.4sec 7. G Panizzi/H Panizzi F Peugeot 206 2hr 54min 05.7sec 8. M Martin/M Park EE Toyota Corolla 2hr 54min 32.5sec 9. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Seat Cordoba 2hr 55min 17.7sec 10. H Rovanpera/R Pietilainen FIN Seat Cordoba 2hr 55min 52.9sec