Monte Carlo Rally Ford report, leg two

Colin McRae and Nicky Grist continued to lead the Monte Carlo Rally in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after today's fascinating second leg in the French Alps. Three Focus cars lie in the top five as Ford Martini World Rally Team...

Colin McRae and Nicky Grist continued to lead the Monte Carlo Rally in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after today's fascinating second leg in the French Alps. Three Focus cars lie in the top five as Ford Martini World Rally Team colleagues Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya hold third and François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup are fifth.

Clear skies greeted the crews this morning on this opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship but the mountain roads around Digne-Les-Bains were as unpredictable as ever. Crews twice tackled the feared Sisteron speed test during the leg, the second time in darkness, and conditions there encapsulated the day - dry asphalt, followed by a wet surface followed by black ice and finally snow. It made tyre selection as difficult as ever.

Drivers faced almost 17 hours behind the wheel during a marathon 814.77km route but the five scheduled special stages were reduced to four when organisers cancelled the penultimate test due to the sheer volume of fans gathered near the start.

McRae and Grist saw their lead quickly reduced by Tommi Mäkinen this morning, the 32-year-old Scottish driver admitting to being too cautious through the packed snow at the top of the Col de Fontbelle on Sisteron. "We chose the right tyres, although maybe we should have had more cuts in them, but I was just too careful in the snow and that's where I lost time," he said.

Mäkinen edged ahead of McRae but fastest time on the second run through Sisteron ensured McRae returned to Monaco this evening with a narrow 3.5sec lead to set up a thrilling final day showdown tomorrow in the mountains above Monte Carlo.

"Tyre choice hasn't been easy today but we've always taken the safe option and that's paid off," added McRae. "We've tried to drive as quickly and safely as possible. It's not the sort of rally on which you can suddenly step up your speed and it's easy to throw away points here. Tomorrow will be exciting. I hope it will be exciting for us for the right reasons but whatever happens it should be an interesting day."

Sainz spent the day in a lonely third, keeping a watching brief on the fight between McRae and Mäkinen ahead, while comfortably ahead of any challenge from behind.

"It's another hard day," said the 38-year-old Madrid-based driver. "I couldn't have pushed any harder and the only way I'm going to gain a place tomorrow is if Colin or Tommi makes a mistake or suffers a problem. I took a big risk by tackling the Sisteron stage tonight without studs but if I was to stand any chance of closing on Colin I had to try a different selection to him. In the end our times were very similar which was amazing. Tomorrow could be very unpredictable due to snow at the top of the cols but we must wait and see what happens."

Delecour and Grataloup quickly climbed to fourth this morning, despite difficulties with their car's hydraulic gearchange which required a switch to the manual system. They posted fastest time on the 14.75km Clumanc - Lambruisse but a recurrence of the gearchange problem on the final stage cost around 20 seconds and they ended the day in fifth, just 4.6sec behind Armin Schwarz.

"Our gear change became more and more difficult as the stage continued but apart from that the car has run strongly. Pirelli's tyres have worked well for us today and it's encouraging for the team that we have three cars in the top five positions," said 38-year-old Delecour.

News from our Rivals

After the catalogue of retirements yesterday, remarkably there were none today.

The principal drama occurred before the cars had even restarted this morning. Fourth-placed Richard Burns (Subaru) limped back to Monaco late last night with severe engine problems. Rather than risk almost certain engine failure, the team decided to withdraw the Briton to join team-mates Markko Martin and Petter Solberg on the sidelines. Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) promised a charge and lived up to his word by posting fastest time on the first two stages to take the lead, before McRae edged back in front this evening. Team-mate Freddy Loix incurred a 70 second penalty after leaving service late due to a broken bolt on the front suspension. Armin Schwarz (Skoda) was again impressive to hold fourth while team-mate Bruno Thiry was frustrated by early differential problems. Alister McRae (Hyundai) lies sixth and on course for his best world championship result.

Tomorrow's Route

The third and final leg is the shortest of all. After leaving Monaco at 08.00 drivers face two loops of two stages covering 98.54km before returning to the Principality for the finish at 15.15. The first and third stages take drivers over the famous Col de Turini, where huge crowds of spectators will gather to watch the action. <pre> Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 3hr 13min 42.4sec 2. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 13min 45.9sec 3. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 3hr 14min 38.1sec 4. A Schwarz/M Hiemer D Skoda Octavia 3hr 15min 55.0sec 5. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Ford Focus 3hr 15min 59.6sec 6. A McRae/D Senior GB Hyundai Accent 3hr 17min 59.5sec 7. T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Peugeot 206 3hr 19min 04.2sec 8. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 19min 25.5sec 9. O Burri/J-P Pathey CH Toyota Corolla 3hr 21min 10.2sec 10 B Thiry/S Prévot B Skoda Octavia 3hr 25min 13.1sec

-Ford Racing

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Tommi Makinen , Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , Freddy Loix , Richard Burns , Petter Solberg , Daniel Grataloup , François Delecour , Alister McRae , Armin Schwarz , Luis Moya , Nicky Grist , Markko Martin