Peugeot 206 WRCs hold the top three placings on the third round of the FIA World Championship, the Tour de Corse, which started this morning. Frenchman Gilles Panizzi and brother Herve are the overnight leaders, with former world champion Marcus...
Peugeot 206 WRCs hold the top three placings on the third round of the FIA World Championship, the Tour de Corse, which started this morning. Frenchman Gilles Panizzi and brother Herve are the overnight leaders, with former world champion Marcus Gronholm second overall and the reigning title-holder Richard Burns third.
Panizzi's renowned speed over the notoriously twisty Corsican roads made him pre-event favourite, and he lived up to his billing this morning. Gilles stunned the opposition with a pair of fastest times on the opening two stages to arrive at service in Ajaccio with a five-second cushion over Gronholm. But he saved his real thunder for the day's longest test, the 35km dash from Petreto to Ampaza. There, he scalped a further seven seconds from his nearest rivals to extend his cushion to more than 13 seconds.
Panizzi thus started the day's final pair of stages aiming for a clean sweep and another scratch time in SS4 kept him on course. But the fickle Corsican weather then intervened - just as the last stage was starting, the heavens opened and with Gronholm running first on the road, he benefited from drier roads to post the fastest time. Panizzi suffered on the soaking wet asphalt but he still arrived at this evening's final service three seconds clear of his team-mate.
Gilles said: "This is a fantastic position for Peugeot - we've got three cars in the first three places. As for myself, I know I lost time in those last two stages, really, because there was a lot of rain just as I started them and Marcus got better conditions. But I'm still confident - the car's been working very well and we have a good position for tomorrow."
Gronholm has consistently posted top-three times today, as the Finn shunned the asphalt form book to hold a podium placing throughout. He initially battled with Petter Solberg, but then the young Norwegian spun in SS4 and allowed Gronholm more breathing space. Throughout the day, Marcus's car has been generally reliable, with only a small alternator problem in SS3 threatening to slow his progress.
Marcus said: "It's been a good day. I'm finding the 206 very easy to drive at the moment, and when that's the case we can push quite hard. The final few stages today were quite tricky because they'd been used earlier today, and there was quite a lot of dirt and gravel on the road. Then in the last stage there was a little rain and the road was damp and slippery in some places, dry in others. But we're already looking strong and if we keep concentration and this speed, we can get a good result."
Burns has continued to settle into the 206 WRC on dry asphalt, but the Briton is now comfortable enough to practically match his team-mates' pace. A mousse insert break-up in one of his tyres cost him a little time in SS3 but otherwise, Richard has had no major mechanical problems. Like Panizzi, Burns lost time with the heavy rain in the last stage but he still arrived in Ajaccio in third overall.
Richard said: "It's been a reasonable day. We've been studying the data to see where Gilles has been faster than me and it seems he's just a little quicker onto the throttle than I am. But I'm quite happy. The rain at the end was unfortunate because it handed Marcus a few seconds over us but we're still at the right end of the battle."
Tomorrow's second leg - the longest of the rally - promises another stern test for the crews. It comprises more than 150km of action and with weather forecasters reporting a strong chance of further rain in the next 24 hours, drivers and teams will have to maintain complete concentration and second-guess the fickle conditions if they're to stay in contention.