Ford Martini extended their lead in the FIA World Rally Championship after points-scoring finishes for Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya and team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist on Italy's Sanremo Rally which ended today. They are 16 points ahead, the equivalent of a maximum score on one rally, with three of the 14 rounds left.
Sainz was superb over the rain-soaked mountain roads in today's final leg to claim fourth in his Ford Focus RS World Rally Car and climb to third in the drivers' series. A blistering performance on the final speed test enabled McRae to overhaul Petter Solberg to secure eighth and gain additional points. François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup were equally impressive on that test to take sixth and the final drivers' point.
After two dry days in the mountains, the weather turned nasty today as fog and heavy rain tested the skills of the world's best drivers to the full. The rain was too much for many who slid off the road in the evil conditions but the combination of strong-running Focus RS cars and Pirelli's tyres ensured a happy ending to Ford's Italian Job.
Sainz was fastest on one stage and second quickest on another to climb from his overnight fifth, demoting world champion Marcus Grönholm and resisting a determined challenge from Renato Travaglia.
"In weather like that you have to push as hard as you can see and however hard you feel brave enough to attack," said 39-year-old Sainz. "We took many risks here but it paid off. Before the start I didn't think we would score any points so this was a big bonus for us and Ford. Things worked better on the more abrasive asphalt sections which is encouraging as the next round in Corsica is on that type of surface. Results have been very close this year and I think I can win one of the remaining rallies."
McRae moved up from an overnight 10th and when Solberg struck problems on the penultimate stage, McRae saw another manufacturer point within his grasp. He powered through the final test, beaten only by team-mate Delecour, to ease ahead of Solberg and stretch Ford's lead. "This was better than expected and the points made all the effort worthwhile," said McRae. "Conditions were awful. Torrential rain in the penultimate stage and leaves all over the road made it slippery. To make things worse there was fog in the last test - not nice conditions in which to chase points."
Delecour was involved in a tense fight with Grönholm for sixth. It seemed Delecour would lose out when on the penultimate stage the Finn gained 30 seconds after a dry run while the 39-year-old Frenchman had to drive the test in heavy rain. However, Delecour raced to quickest time on the last 15.19km test to take the final drivers' point.
"It was so wet that I thought we had lost sixth. But I was determined to hold on so in the final stage I tried left-foot braking on asphalt for the first time and look what happened - fastest time. At 39 years old I tried this for the first time and it worked. It's fantastic!" said the excited Delecour.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson said the seven points gained by the team exceeded the target of five. "Both the car and Pirelli's tyres have progressed and we've proved today that we're very competitive in the wet but we still have more work to do in the dry. It's a shame we didn't have a wet rally all the way through."
News from our Rivals
Gilles Panizzi (Peugeot) completed his second consecutive victory in Italy, leading home the impressive Sebastian Loeb by 11.4sec after easing off over the final tests. Didier Auriol (Peugeot) settled for third with Italian privateer Renato Travaglia taking fifth behind Sainz and ahead of Delecour. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) was the most disappointed driver, power steering problems costing almost two minutes and demoting him to seventh. Torrential rain on the penultimate stage sidelined seven cars, among them Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) who retired the new Lancer WRC after hitting a wall and ripping off the front left wheel and Markko Martin (Subaru) who clipped a wall and rolled heavily. Roman Kresta (Skoda) stopped just 3km from the end with engine failure.
FIA Super 1600 Championship
All seven Ford Pumas that started the junior world championship category finished, the first occasion in which a manufacturer has achieved this. Francois Duval led the way, the impressive young Belgian setting one fastest and two second fastest times on the final day to finish second. Frenchman Patrick Magaud was fifth, Norway's Martin Stenshorne preserved third in the championship with eighth and Benoit Rousselot was ninth.
Next round The world championship remains on asphalt and in the Mediterranean for the next round, the Tour of Corsica, which is based in Ajaccio on 19 - 21 October.
<pre> Final positions 1. G Panizzi/H Panizzi F Peugeot 206 4hr 05min 49.5sec 2. S Loeb/D Elena F Citroen Xsara 4hr 06min 00.9sec 3. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Peugeot 206 4hr 06min 44.4sec 4. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 4hr 07min 01.4sec 5. R Travaglia/F Zanella I Peugeot 206 4hr 07min 21.6sec 6. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Ford Focus RS 4hr 08min 18.1sec 7. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 4hr 08min 36.8sec 8. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 4hr 09min 43.2sec 9. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 4hr 09min 49.4sec 10 S Jean-Joseph/J Boyere F Peugeot 206 4hr 09min 51.0sec
FIA World Rally Championship (after round 11 of 14) Drivers 1= C McRae 40pts 1= T Mäkinen 40pts 3. C Sainz 33pts 4. R Burns 31pts 5. H Rovanperä 27pts 6. M Grönholm 16pts
Manufacturers 1. Ford 83pts 2. Mitsubishi 67pts 3. Peugeot 60pts 4. Subaru 48pts 5. Skoda 15pts 6. Hyundai 10pts