Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya dominated today's second leg of the Cyprus Rally to set up a thrilling four-car showdown for victory on tomorrow's final leg of this sixth round of the FIA...
Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya dominated today's second leg of the Cyprus Rally to set up a thrilling four-car showdown for victory on tomorrow's final leg of this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
McRae's Ford Focus RS World Rally Car ended the hot, dusty and rough leg in second, just 3.0sec behind fellow Briton Richard Burns after a cagey game of cat and mouse in the final few kilometres to ensure the best possible position on the road for tomorrow. Sainz's Focus RS lies fourth, just 24.6sec behind Burns after a blistering performance which matched the 35°C air temperatures.
The 39-year-old Spaniard posted fastest time on six of the day's eight speed tests in the twisty forests of the Troodos Mountains, north of the rally base of Limassol. After being 85.7sec off the lead last night, the Madrid-based driver took full advantage of a perfect running position and now has his sights set on victory.
As in yesterday's opening leg, loose gravel made conditions extremely slippery for the first few cars to tackle this morning's four stages. Leg one leader Marcus Grönholm paid a heavy penalty for tackling them first and both Burns and McRae eased past him as Sainz also reined in last year's world champion.
The morning stages were repeated this afternoon and although conditions were more equal, the fight between the two Britons continued unabated. McRae posted one fastest time to take the lead and give the Ford Martini team seven out of eight stage victories today. But the 32-year-old Scot was unwilling to be first on the road tomorrow and played the master tactician to allow Burns back in front, ensuring better driving conditions while remaining close enough to strike.
"Everything has gone to plan today," said McRae. "I wanted to take time back from Richard, which I've done, but not end the day in front. It's been another tough day, especially on tyres, but it's good to have such a close fight. Carlos should have the cleanest roads so he could be the biggest threat of all, but I'm happy with my position for tomorrow. The only uncertainty is that I'm not really sure what rocks Richard's car will kick up onto the road but we'll have to cope with that, the same as we'll have to cope with the tyre wear, which could be bad," he added.
Sainz seemed capable of reeling off fastest stage times at will as he joined the victory chase. Running sixth on the road gave him a virtually clean driving line and his attack was calculated to perfection. He lies close enough to the leading trio to pose a serious threat and will enjoy the best road conditions of any of the top four.
"I think we're in the best position for tomorrow, especially for the four morning stages which will clean quite a lot," explained Sainz. "The afternoon stages are repeats so, like today, they will not clean as much then.
"We must make our attack in the morning and I think it's quite possible that all four of us could go into the afternoon stages separated by just a handful of seconds. Then it will be a big fight. The stages will be hard on the cars and tyres again but Pirelli's rubber has worked well today and I'm sure it will tomorrow," said Sainz.
Ford Martini team-mates François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup were in the thick of the battle in third until an engine problem after the first of the afternoon tests forced their Focus RS into retirement. "We were less than 13 seconds off the lead when the engine suddenly stopped on the liaison section a few kilometres after the finish of stage 11," said Delecour. "There was a little smoke from under the bonnet and that was the only warning. Although we were eventually able to re-start the engine, it was running on three cylinders and there was no point in continuing. Although I couldn't be sure of winning, we were fighting hard and everything was going perfectly."
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The morning stages accounted for two more manufacturer cars. Kenneth Eriksson (Hyundai) stopped with alternator problems in stage nine while Didier Auriol (Peugeot) retired at the end of stage 10 with a broken radiator. Auriol's team-mate, Marcus Grönholm, struggled with the road conditions at the head of the running order but apart from hitting a rock this afternoon, he encountered no other problems. Richard Burns (Subaru) was untroubled today while team-mate Toshihiro Arai impressed en route to fifth. Freddy Loix (Mitsubishi) broke a front left driveshaft on the day's second stage and had to complete two more before repairs could be made. He lost almost three minutes but still holds sixth. Both Skoda drivers Bruno Thiry and Armin Schwarz lie in the top 10, Thiry enjoying a trouble free day while Schwarz overcame a series of mechanical maladies which cost around two minutes. The sole-surviving Hyundai of Alister McRae climbed to ninth, his day problem free in contrast to yesterday.
The final leg, although still based around Limassol, comprises stages much further to the east between the seaside resort and the island capital of Nicosia. After re-starting at 08.00, competitors face four stages which are repeated during the afternoon to give a total of 97.46km of competition. They return to Limassol for the finish ceremony at 17.30.
<pre> Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 3hr 43min 17.3sec 2. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 3hr 43min 20.3sec 3. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 3hr 43min 35.9sec 4. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 3hr 43min 41.9sec 5. T Arai/G MacNeall J Subaru Impreza 3hr 47min03.8sec 6. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 48min 07.1sec 7. P Hagström/T Gardemeister FIN Toyota Corolla 3hr 49min 49.4sec 8. B Thiry/S Prévot B Skoda Octavia 3hr 51min 20.4sec 9. A McRae/D Senior GB Hyundai Accent 3hr 51min 43.3sec 10 A Schwarz/M Hiemer D Skoda Octavia 3hr 53min 00.7sec