Consistent McRae keeps Ford Martini on the attack
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist set a hard-charging pace during today's second leg of the Tour of Corsica rally to move their Ford Focus World Rally Car into fourth with one day remaining of this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Ford Martini World Rally Team pairing were the fastest four-wheel drive competitors over today's six asphalt mountain special stages and quicker even than leader Philippe Bugalski.
The lightweight two-wheel drive cars set a fierce pace at the top of the leaderboard. But 30-year-old McRae, his confidence in the Ford Focus increasing with every twisty kilometre after overnight changes to the car's set-up, refused to be daunted. Second fastest time on one stage, third quickest on four more and fourth on the other enabled him to climb from an overnight fifth and reel in Carlos Sainz ahead of him.
McRae's pace was matched by his bravery. When torrential rain on the longest stage of the rally trapped all the top competitors on dry-patterned tyres, making driving treacherous, it was a true test of nerve and courage.
The Scot delivered a crushing performance, more than seven seconds faster than Sainz, over 23 seconds quicker than Didier Auriol and 31 seconds clear of championship leader Tommi Makinen.
"We've enjoyed another good day," said McRae. "We managed to slash Carlos' advantage by almost 10 seconds and if I hadn't spun on the last stage, I think we would have moved ahead of him. We had some really big 'moments' on that last stage in the rain. Any car on slick tyres and a dry set-up in those conditions is going to be really unpredictable and we had a couple of big sideways incidents. It was more like driving on gravel than asphalt," he added.
Huge crowds turned out in the mountains to watch the world's top drivers and the sheer number of spectators wanting to see the action forced organisers to delay the start of one stage by almost an hour until they were satisfied with the level of safety.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson was in confident mood as the cars returned to Ajaccio this evening. "It's been a very good day for us. It was a shame Colin lost time with a spin on the final stage but he's still been the quickest four-wheel drive car today and he's also halved the overnight time gap between himself and Carlos Sainz.
"If the weather is dry tomorrow, we have to accept we will not catch Bugalski or Puras but we will still push to try to overtake Carlos. If the weather stays wet, I see no reason why we cannot take the lead. We've changed the rear dampers and the geometry on Colin's car at every service to improve the handling and balance of the car. We've been learning things in competition which you never discover during testing and that's so valuable on a new car like the Ford Focus," he added.
Simon Jean-Joseph and Fred Gallagher, who retired yesterday in the other Ford Martini Focus, will return to tackle the final televised stage. Team engineers diagnosed a fault in the crank sensor which failed to send information to the car's engine management system, causing the engine to shut down. Repairs have been made and the 29-year-old Martinique driver will be the first to start the TV spectacular.
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The lightweight two-wheel drive Citroens again dominated, leader Philippe Bugalski setting three fastest times and Jesus Puras two, although Bugalski lost 30 seconds during the final stage in the rain. Neither Toyota duo Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol nor Subaru pairing Richard Burns and Bruno Thiry had any problems, a lack of grip on the cooler asphalt of today's stages the only complaint from the latter two. Peugeot's Francois Delecour was fastest on the first stage but transmission difficulties cost much time this afternoon and he slipped to seventh. Team-mate Gilles Panizzi retired in the final stage with an engine management system problem. It was another trying day for championship leader Tommi Makinen and Mitsubishi team-mate Freddy Loix, troubles with the brake cooling system costing time and a poor tyre choice on stage nine not helping. Harri Rovanpera and Piero Liatti struggled with their Seats, although reliability was not a problem and Liatti brought some joy with fourth fastest time on the last test.
The final leg is similar to the opening day - the first four tests were used during the first leg. The difference is the final stage, which will be broadcast live on international television with extra championship points awarded to the fastest cars and drivers. This innovation, being tried for the first time in Corsica, is planned to be a part of all championship rallies in 2001. Competitors leave Ajaccio at 06.45, returning to the finish at 17.00 after six more asphalt stages covering 109km.
Nicky Grist: "I don't think there's a key stage tomorrow because every one will be so important to us. Decisions on tyre choice and set up will be vital. If we make the wrong tyre choice and are caught out by the weather, we could lose a lot of time."
Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. P Bugalski/J-P Chiaroni F Citroen Xsara 2hr 35min 07.0sec 2. J Puras/M Marti E Citroen Xsara 2hr 35min 13.3sec 3. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 2hr 35min 34.8sec 4. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 2hr 35min 44.3sec 5. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Toyota Corolla 2hr 36min 28.3sec 6. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 2hr 37min 17.9sec 7. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 2hr 37min 23.6sec 8. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 37min 4.8sec 9. B Thiry/S Prevot B Subaru Impreza 2hr 38min 20.2sec 10 F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 2hr 39min 08.6sec