Seventy-five of the original 85 crews left a cold but dry parc ferme in the host town of Cardiff this morning to contest Leg two of the Rally of Great Britain, the final round of the 2002 FIA World Rally Championship.
Including five forest stages based around a central service park in Felindre, the Leg covered a further 114.59 competitive kilometres, before crews returned to Cardiff for the third and final 2.45km sprint around the Super Special Stage. Weather conditions remained dry and bright throughout the day, with temperatures averaging a chilly 9 degrees C.
In a day which saw a number of works team retirements, including that of overnight leader Marcus Gronholm, yesterday's leaderboard changed considerably. With the Peugeot driver out, and his 1 minute 8 second lead gone, a close battle for the top-spot ensued between 555 Subaru World Rally Team driver Petter Solberg and Ford's Markko Martin, with Carlos Sainz and Richard Burns also in positions to push for victory. Solberg's 555 Subaru team-mate Tommi Makinen also had a good day at the wheel of his Impreza today and held off a challenge by Colin McRae in a close battle for fifth overall.
With only four more stages of the rally to run, and a further 138.50 competitive kms left to contest, a thrilling battle is anticipated between ex team-mates, and WRC young guns, Solberg and Martin. Ahead of tomorrow's stages the pair are separated by less than two seconds, and both will be battling for the first win of their young WRC careers.
SS8 0811hrs Resolfen 1 (54.69km)
Fastest time: Gronholm (Peugeot) 28:56.5
The very long and very fast 55km Resolfen stage, one of the longest in the championship, certainly proved to be a sharp wake up call for some of the leading drivers this morning and the tricky conditions shook up the overall order. Continuing yesterday's winning form, Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm was quickest, finishing 5.2 seconds ahead of team-mate Richard Burns who was second. Richard's early morning charge helped the Brit to make up some of yesterday's lost time and moved him up the order from eighth to sixth place overall. Meanwhile, resuming his battle for overall second with 555 Subaru driver Petter Solberg, Ford's Markko Martin was fifth quickest, ahead of Petter in sixth. While this was enough to move the Estonian back up to the coveted position, at the end of the test Petter remained well within striking distance. Not such a good stage for the Hyundai team. 13th placed Armin Schwarz left the road just after the start and damaged his exhaust, which started a fire. His team-mate Juha Kankkunen stopped to help extinguish the flames and although both crews were able to continue, they lost over a nine minutes and a minute respectively and Schwarz later retired. Thomas Radstrom also retired due to mechanical problems.
SS9 1152hrs Crychan 1 (12.67km)
Fastest time: Solberg (Subaru) 7:03.6
Reacting to Markko Martin's challenge on the previous test, Subaru star Petter Solberg stormed through SS9, the first run of the day through the short Crychan test, to finish over a second ahead of Burns and clinch his second stage win of the event. Running over the dry base shale surface, the Norwegian revelled in the twisty and technical conditions, which suited the set up of the Subaru Impreza WRC 2002. At the end of the test he lay just 4.9 seconds off second overall with eight more stages left to run. Meanwhile, Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm had to settle for third quickest, but continued to comfortably lead the rally, while Markko Martin was fourth. A low hanging branch caused problems for many leading competitors and Tommi Makinen and Carlos Sainz were among those who lost time with broken windscreens.
SS10 1221hrs Halfway 1 (17.28km)
Fastest time: Burns (Peugeot) 9:50.8
In a stage of high drama, the first run through the twisty Halfway 1 saw Marcus Gronholm's rally come to an abrupt end when the Finn rolled his Peugeot 206WRC at the stages infamous "Deer's Leap" asphalt section. Moments later fellow Finn Jani Paasonen rolled his Mitsubishi in the same place and came to land five metres from Gronholm's Peugeot. Fortunately, both crews were unhurt. Another casualty of SS10 was the Mitsubishi of Francois Delecour, the Frenchman crashed the remaining Lancer WRC2 after a late note call on a crest near the finish. The incident not only ended his rally, but also brought Mitsubishi's hopes of a fourth place in the manufacturers' championship to an end. Bad luck too for Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera. The Finn was forced to contest the stage with no brakes and dropped almost 40 seconds. Looking to the leaders, Burns was fastest, Loeb second and Solberg third. At the end of the stage, with just 3.5 seconds separating the new leader, Markko Martin, and second placed Petter Solberg, there looked set to be an exciting battle for victory in the event's remaining stages.
SS11 1446hrs Crychan 2 (12.67km)
Fastest time: Solberg (Subaru) 7:07.1
Following Gronholm's retirement in SS11, Subaru's Petter Solberg went directly on the attack in the second run through Crychan and repeated his earlier performance to finish the 12.67km test fastest and claim his third stage win of the event. Finishing ahead of Markko Martin, albeit slower than on his previous run, Solberg shaved another 0.6 seconds from the Estonian's overall lead and at the end of the test just 2.9 seconds separated the two 27 year olds. Burns was third fastest and Makinen fourth, which was enough to move him back up to fifth place overall. Sainz continued his steady run and was fifth fastest, maintaining his overall third position, 18.1 seconds behind Solberg. Rovanpera was troubled with wheel bearing problems and dropped a minute to the leaders. At the end of the test he would still have to contest a further stage before being able to return to service for much needed repairs.
SS12 1515hrs Halfway 2 (17.28km)
Fastest time: Solberg (Subaru) 9:59.9
Fortunately, there was no repeat of the dramas witnessed on the first run through the twisty forest Halfway stage and another sparkling run by Solberg saw the Subaru star claim his second consecutive stage win. The Norwegian took another 1.1 seconds from Markko Martin and, at the end of the test with five more stages left to run, the Estonian's lead had been reduced to just 1.8 seconds. Not such a great stage for Richard Burns and Carlos Sainz who were also looking for victory at this event. The previous winners, who finished sixth and eighth fastest respectively, were a few seconds off the pace, allowing Solberg to extend his overall second place by another seven seconds. Tommi Makinen was fourth fastest and increased his overall advantage on Colin McRae by 1.3 seconds.
SS13 1930hrs Cardiff Super Special 3 (2.45km)
Fastest time: Solberg (Subaru) 2:07.9
The final pass through the Cardiff Super Special, brought another stage win for Petter Solberg and narrowed the overall gap between himself and Martin to 1.6 seconds. Markko was second fastest with Sainz third and Burns fourth. A spin and stall from Colin McRae cost the Scot around 25 seconds and dropped him from sixth to seventh overall.
Petter Solberg: "The car has worked really well and there have been no problems. I lost a little time on the first stage, but on the twisty stages everything has been going very well. I'm taking quite lot of risks now, and it's getting very exciting -- it should be really good tomorrow. Markko Martin is driving very well but I've got a chance to take silver in the championship and it's not a game anymore!"
Tommi Makinen: "The car has been feeling very fast today -- it's been good. The first stage (SS8) was not so easy, I was delayed by rocks thrown up by Colin (McRae's) car and I lost some time there. But, before the group of four stages in the middle of the day, we changed the set up of the car a little bit and it felt really good. We were a little unlucky when we hit a tree branch in SS9, it caused some damage to my windscreen and I had to look through a little hole to see for that and the next stage, which slowed me a little. This was repaired after SS10 and, since then, I've been very happy. The car is behaving very well, so we will change nothing now and tomorrow I will try to go a fast as possible."
David Lapworth, 555 Subaru Team Principal: "It's been a great day for Petter -- he's driven faultlessly. We discussed yesterday the risks that Marcus was taking and felt that the best tactic was to wait and see what happened, and now Petter is perfectly poised. We're expecting a tough fight tomorrow but there is every reason to be confident. Equally, Tommi Makinen has found a groove today, he's put in some excellent times and has fought well against Colin McRae."
Team talk - Drivers and the Off-Season
* With just 68 days until Rallye Monte Carlo and the start of the 2003 WRC calendar, the off-season is ironically one of the busiest times of the year for both the rally team and its drivers. While Formula One and Superbike teams enjoy nearly five months between each season, rally teams have less than ten weeks -- and with car development programmes, and a new season to prepare for, there's not much time for a break. Here's a glance at what the 555 Subaru World Rally Team drivers will be up to over the coming weeks:
* In early December both Tommi Makinen and Petter Solberg will each make promotional trips to Japan to attend Subaru Impreza Owners Club meetings in Tokyo and Osaka
* Petter Solberg will be travelling to northern Italy to take part in the promotional Bettega Memorial Rally. Petter will drive his Subaru Impreza WRC 2002 car at the rally sprint event, which attracts more than 20,000 spectators every year
* In mid-December, Tommi, Petter and the team will be in Europe to test the new Subaru Impreza WRC 2003 car. Following last months prototype development test in Spain where the car was driven by Paolo Andreucci and Pasi Hagstrom, this will be the first time that Tommi or Petter will have driven the new car prior to it's launch in January 2003
* Petter and Tommi will also be involved in another gravel test in early January
* David Lapworth, 555 Subaru World Rally Team Principal, commented: "Because the off season is so short, there is virtually no time for the team or drivers to rest. Testing for next year's car always begins well before the end of the previous season -- so often at this time of the year we are already preparing for the events at the end of the following year. Rallying really is a full time job, with no break. Because of this, the biggest challenge is ensuring that the drivers have time to wind down and have a break before building up to the first race of the season again. Realistically, they can take a couple of weeks off around Christmas if they're lucky -- not at all the two months that people commonly think they have!"
Starts at 0530hrs when the first car will leave parc ferme in the host town of Cardiff to contest the final round of the 2002 World Rally Championship. Just four more stages and 138.50 competitive kilometres lie in wait for the remaining crews, and the 2002 Championships will be confirmed when the winning car crosses the finish podium inside Cardiff Castle at 1640hrs.