Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist paved the way for a thrilling final day battle on the Rally New Zealand after charging up the leaderboard into second place during today's second leg. The British duo were fastest overall in...
Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist paved the way for a thrilling final day battle on the Rally New Zealand after charging up the leaderboard into second place during today's second leg. The British duo were fastest overall in their Ford Focus World Rally Car during the nine speed tests to climb from an overnight sixth to mount a strong challenge for victory.
McRae and Grist led a trio of Focus World Rally Cars in the top six points-scoring positions on this eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Ford Martini team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya maintained their overnight fourth position while Petter Solberg and Phil Mills held sixth.
Road conditions again played a vital part in the day's action in the Northland region north of Auckland. As on yesterday's opening leg, loose gravel on the road made driving difficult for the early runners who swept the stones away to the benefit of those further down the order. Heavy rain late in the afternoon, swept in by gale force winds, added to the difficulties.
McRae, who suffered yesterday, took full advantage of a better position to reel in overnight leader Francois Delecour and Marcus Grönholm, who took the lead when Delecour retired on the day's third stage. The 31-year-old Scot posted two fastest times as he slashed the deficit between himself and Grönholm to 22.9sec, with world championship leader Richard Burns third.
"We've taken a lot of time from Marcus today but we've still got a big job ahead of us tomorrow," said McRae. "It's quite a large gap to close down but we will start tomorrow's stages behind Marcus and that'll be to our advantage so long as it stays dry. The first stage in the morning will be the critical one. It's more than 30km long and has a lot of loose gravel on it whereas the rest of the tests are shorter with more grip.
"Second is certainly where we wanted to be tonight but I would have liked to have been a bit closer to Marcus. Richard is behind us, which is to his benefit, so we must keep a close watch on him attacking from the back," he said.
Sainz and Moya again found themselves in the middle of the leading group, neither losing out nor gaining from the conditions. The 38-year-old Madrid-based driver admitted he struggled to have full confidence in his car until late in the day but is under no real pressure from behind.
"I wasn't happy with the car's suspension set-up initially," said Sainz. "First it was too hard and then too soft so I was constantly making alterations to try to find a set-up with which I was happy. I also made a couple of mistakes with my tyre selection so I think we can say it wasn't a brilliant day for me, but not so bad either. Tomorrow I will wait and see what happens in the battle at the front and if anyone has problems, I hope I can capitalise."
Solberg and Mills, second overnight, were always likely to struggle with the loose gravel and their task became harder still when Delecour's retirement meant they were the first competitors to tackle the stages for most of the day. After slipping to seventh they climbed back into the points during the final three stages of the leg on roads cleaned during the first passage in the morning.
"It's the first time I've been in the position of tackling the stages first and it makes an enormous difference," said the 25-year-old Norwegian driver. "Even when you're second car through the stages in these conditions it's easier because you have a slightly cleaner line to follow but when you're first there's no line to see. That's something else I've learned on this rally. Tomorrow I will again have a better position on the road and my aim is hold onto sixth and stay in the points."
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Overnight leader Francois Delecour (Peugeot) was the day's principal retirement, a broken gearbox costing nine minutes on the second stage this morning and putting him out for good on the next. Team-mate Marcus Grönholm took over at the front, setting fastest time in the wet on each of the final three stages. Richard Burns (Subaru) provided the sandwich between McRae and Sainz, the Briton's main problem a time-consuming spin this afternoon. Team-mate Juha Kankkunen was untroubled en route to fifth. Tommi Mäkinen and Freddy Loix (both Mitsubishi) again struggled with suspension and transmission problems, the team ultimately withdrawing Loix late in the afternoon due to safety reasons, as he had little to fight for. Kenneth Eriksson (Hyundai) lost time during the final three slippery stages but team-mate Alister McRae was untroubled. The day's other major retirement was Didier Auriol (Seat) who crashed out 1km from the finish of the penultimate test.
The final leg leaves Auckland at 07.00 and after an opening test of more than 30km, drivers face six more shorter stages without an opportunity for service in between before returning to the city for the finish at 15.30. They face 79.18km of competitive driving in a total route of 425.18km
<pre> Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 59min 58.6sec 2. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 3hr 00min 21.5sec 3. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 3hr 00min 36.0sec 4. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 3hr 01min 08.8sec 5. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 3hr 01min 37.6sec 6. P Solberg/P Mills N Ford Focus 3hr 02min 48.9sec 7. K Eriksson/S Parmander S Hyundai Accent 3hr 03min 05.4sec 8. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 03min 13.9sec 9. A McRae/D Senior GB Hyundai Accent 3hr 03min 27.5sec 10 P Bourne/M Stacey NZ Subaru Impreza 3hr 05min 54.0sec