Marcus Gronholm's cool and collected approach and the retirement of his closest rival Richard Burns (Subaru) have allowed the Peugeot-Michelin driver to pull out what appears to be a comfortable cushion at the top of the provisional Rally Finland...
Marcus Gronholm's cool and collected approach and the retirement of his closest rival Richard Burns (Subaru) have allowed the Peugeot-Michelin driver to pull out what appears to be a comfortable cushion at the top of the provisional Rally Finland leaderboard.
At the end of the second leg, Gronholm has carved out a gap of just under a minute over the remarkable Finnish privateer Harri Rovanpera (2nd, Toyota-Michelin) who has continued to profit from his local knowledge to stay clear of third-placed Colin McRae (Ford-Michelin).
The picture at the sharp end of the rally switched radically early this morning when Richard Burns left the road at high speed as he crossed the flying finish line of the day's opening stage. Given the damage sustained by his car, there was no way the Briton could continue and he now faces the increasingly possible prospect of losing his Drivers' World Championship lead with five rounds of the series remaining.
With a full day's competition to go before Sunday evening's finish, nothing is over yet of course. However, the most likely candidate to take over from the Subaru driver at the top of the points table is Gronholm himself. Today, following the retirement of Burns, the Finn has been happy to profit from the 206 WRC's clockwork reliability to control from in front. In the process, he has set fastest time on no fewer than four of the day's eight stages, the remaining four having been shared between Peugeot-Michelin's Sebastian Lindholm, Ford-Michelin's Colin McRae and Subaru driver Juha Kankkunen.
Kankkunen's chances of finishing in the big points took a major blow when he was forced to stop and change a punctured tyre on SS16. The incident dropped the Finn outside the top-ten but allowed reigning World Champion Tommi Makinen (Mitsubishi-Michelin) to move up to fourth place overnight.
That position could well have been the property tonight of Sebastian Lindholm had the one-off Peugeot-Michelin driver not dropped time with a turbo problem on SS15. As it stands, Gronholm's cousin is currently fifth overall, but barely ten seconds adrift of Makinen and more than a full minute clear of fellow Peugeot-Michelin runner François Delecour (6th).
The Hyundai-Michelin team is continuing to gather World Championship experience with a two-car entry on the 2000 Rally Finland for Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson. Although the latter was delayed with an alternator problem on the second leg's penultimate stage, his Scottish teammate is on target for a top ten result and perhaps the Korean manufacturer's third points finish in four outings.
Markko Martin, who hails from Estonia which is just a hop across the Baltic Sea from Finland, has been running well with his privately entered Toyota-Michelin, and even set the third fastest time on SS11. It is quite possible he could even have been challenging the likes of Delecour going into the final day had he not lost time after clouting a rock and destroying his rear-right wheel which he was forced to stop and change. As it is, he is just outside the top-ten in 11th position.
Carlos Sainz (Ford-Michelin) has continued to claw his way back up the field after an electronic problem on Day 1 forced him back to 104th at the end of SS2. After starting Leg 2 in 30th position, the Spaniard has driven bravely to climb to 13th overall at end of play this evening, despite a slow-speed role on the day's opening test.
Finally, Michelin continues to lead the Group N category with local expert Jani Paasonen (Mitsubishi-Michelin), while the showing of French privateer Olivier Marty - competing in Finland for the first time and currently leading the competitive A6 class with his Peugeot 106-Michelin - cannot be overlooked.
CLASSIC FINLAND. Today's selection of fast, wide, hard-packed stages provided crews with classic Rally Finland stage conditions, while sporadic rain in the course of the afternoon kept drivers constantly on their toes. Today's temperatures varied from a low of 11C to a high of 19C.
TYRES USED. As was the case for Leg 1, Michelin's WRC partners used a number of different patterns, compounds and cuts according to the conditions of the moment and personal driver choice. Event leader Marcus Gronholm continued to use the Michelin ZA pattern. Unlike yesterday however, when he used the 8 compound throughout, the Peugeot driver today switched exclusively to the new generation 9 compound for the harder-packed gravel and the longer groups of stages.
FASTEST TIMES. Michelin was fastest on six of today's eight stages with three different drivers (Gronholm 4, Lindholm and McRae 1) taking its total score for the rally so far to thirteen fastest times from eighteen stages with four different drivers (Gronholm 10, Makinen, Lindholm and McRae 1).
NEW GENERATION. Of Gronholm's three fastest stage times today, perhaps his most significant performance was on the day's opening test (SS11) when he took the judicious decision to run the new generation 9 compound Michelin ZA. Although Burns crashed after crossing the flying finish line, Gronholm was 9.7 seconds quicker than his British rival's recorded time over the 30.34 km stage.
TRIBUTE TO ROVANPERA. The remarkable performance of Harri Rovanpera in a privately entered Toyota (2nd overall) has been one of the features of the rally so far. The Finn has been consistently quick ever since yesterday morning's start even though he has little previous experience of the Michelin tyres (Michelin ZA and Z-cut) he is running on his home event.