The final round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship is poised for a grandstand finish tomorrow, after a second leg filled with drama on the Rally of Great Britain. Newly-crowned world champion Marcus GrÃ¶nholm crashed out of the event this...
The final round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship is poised for a grandstand finish tomorrow, after a second leg filled with drama on the Rally of Great Britain. Newly-crowned world champion Marcus Grönholm crashed out of the event this morning, opening up a close fight for the lead between Ford's Markko Martin and Subaru driver Petter Solberg. Neither of these drivers, part of the sport's younger generation, has won a world championship event before. They entered this evening's superspecial in host city Cardiff separated by just under two seconds, so a close finish to the season looks likely.
Grönholm was one of the several drivers to be caught out by a stretch of asphalt road on the day's third stage, "Halfway 1". His retirement means that he cannot now match Didier Auriol's record of six victories in one season. But Peugeot still has an outside chance of matching Lancia's record of nine wins in a year - outgoing world champion Richard Burns moved up to fourth today, behind Carlos Sainz and ahead of Tommi Mäkinen and Colin McRae.
Technical: The Focus RS WRC02s of Markko Martin, Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae and Mark Higgins have all been reliable today, although the Spaniard and the Scot broke windscreens in Crychan 1. Higgins' only worry occurred when he suffered a gearbox glitch and was unable to select neutral before the start of a stage with the paddle-shift system. Using the regular gear stick solved the problem, though, and the paddle system worked fine once he'd started the test.
Sporting: Markko Martin attacked hard in Resolfen this morning and it was enough to catapult him back past Petter Solberg into second overall. But the Norwegian fought back in the next two stages as Martin was left dissatisfied with his choice of tyres. Their battle turned into one for the lead on the second of those tests, Halfway, when leader Marcus Grönholm crashed out, so Estonian Martin now has a chance to claim his first world rally victory. He ended the day's last forest stage just 1.8 seconds ahead of Solberg. Carlos Sainz felt that his tyre choice for the long Resolfen test this morning was not perfect, but the Spaniard has kept in touch with the leaders throughout this afternoon. He returned to Cardiff tonight in third, less than half a minute off the lead. Colin McRae, meanwhile, inched closer to Tommi Mäkinen today and he arrived in Cardiff for the final run over the superspecial this evening less than two seconds behind his Finnish rival. Ford's fourth driver, Mark Higgins, has been satisfied with an improvement in his pace today as he moved up to eighth as he returned to Cardiff.
Quotes: Markko Martin said: "I don't really feel any pressure - we can only try our best, after all. If we make a spin and lose the rally because of that tomorrow, then I'll be disappointed. But if we do our best and Petter wins just because he's been that bit quicker, then fair enough." Colin McRae said: "It's clearly going to be pretty close between the two guys at the finish. I'm not sure that both of them will get to the end without having a problem of some kind - maybe a mechanical problem or a mistake."
Technical: Petter Solberg and Tommi Mäkinen have experienced no real problems with their Impreza WRC2002s today, although like many, the Finn broke a windscreen in Crychan 1.
Sporting: Petter Solberg lost time to overnight rival Markko Martin on this morning's opening stage, when the Subaru driver had a half-spin. But thereafter, he inched closer and closer to the Ford driver as the afternoon progressed, taking even more risks after Marcus Grönholm crashed out and promoted their tussle from a scrap to second to the fight for the lead. Solberg ended the day's last forest stage just 1.8 seconds behind his Estonian rival. His team-mate Tommi Mäkinen has not been able to match Solberg's pace today and the Finn also ceded a position to the recovering Richard Burns, but he did manage to fend off Colin McRae for the forest stages to return to Cardiff's final superspecial run this evening 1.4 seconds clear of the Scot.
Quotes: Petter Solberg said: "I've been taking even more risks this afternoon than I was yesterday. If I want to have a chance to win then I've got no choice - I have to try. It's going to be a good fight - I think the first, long stage of the day will be crucial."
Technical: The 206 WRCs of Richard Burns and Gilles Panizzi have been reliable today. Marcus Grönholm's car suffered hydraulic problems on the stage before he crashed out, however. Harri Rovanperä also hit trouble - his car broke a left-rear wheel bearing in the day's third stage, forcing Rovanperä to disconnect the rear brakes and limp through both Crychan and Halfway before he reached service.
Sporting: Marcus Grönholm set fastest time on today's opening, long stage but then his car was hit by hydraulic problems in SS9, forcing him to resort to the manual gearshift. On the next stage, he was caught out by a stretch of asphalt road and rolled into retirement. His team-mate Richard Burns has continued his recovery after his first-day accident; the Englishman has moved up to fourth overall, albeit still nearly a minute behind leaders Markko Martin and Petter Solberg. The third 206 WRC driver, Harri Rovanperä, was slowed by a broken wheel bearing in today's third stage and he had to disconnect the rear brakes to stand any chance of limping back to service this evening. He did so, but the Finn had dropped out of the top 10 as a result. Peugeot's fourth entry, Gilles Panizzi, holds 13th overnight after another steady day's driving.
Quotes: Marcus Grönholm said: "I was just too fast for the corner and for the jump, and we went off. I'm disappointed, because it hadn't felt like we were really pushing or taking risks. Richard Burns said: "The gap looks too big to the leaders but of course we'll try. Between Petter and Markko, it's really too close to call."
Technical: Sebastien Loeb lost time this morning when his Xsara WRC's dashboard failed in the opening stage, forcing him to drive for more than 40km with no indication of what gear he was in. Team-mate Thomas Radstrom retired in the same stage when his car holed its sump and lost its engine oil.
Sporting: Sebastien Loeb looked in danger of being swallowed up by the recovering Colin McRae and Richard Burns this morning, especially after his car's dashboard failed in the long Resolfen stage, forcing him to drive without any gear indicator. The young Frenchman halted his slide this afternoon, however, posting third fastest time in the last run over Halfway to secure ninth overall, less than half a minute behind Mark Higgins. The second Xsara driver Thomas Radstrom retired in Resolfen this morning - he cut a corner too tight and holed his car's sump, causing a terminal loss of engine oil.
Quotes: Sebastien Loeb said: "It was hard in Resolfen without the gear indicator, because that's a really long stage and you need as much confidence as possible. But this afternoon has been going better, because I've found quite a good setting for the car and I'm getting more confident."
Technical: The Accent WRCs Armin Schwarz's Accent, meanwhile, caught fire in this morning's opening stage. The car could be repaired for the following tests, but the German was told not to continue because he was clearly ill with smoke and fumes inhalation. The cars of Freddy Loix and Juha Kankkunen have been reliable, though.
Sporting: Juha Kankkunen and Freddy Loix have maintained their steady progress up the leaderboard. Kankkunen did lose time in Resolfen, however, when he stopped to give team-mate Armin Schwarz a fire extinguisher to put out the flames on his burning Accent. Organisers allocated the four-times world champion a better time later in the day, though. He ended the last forest stage in 10th but under pressure from Peugeot's Harri Rovanperä. Loix felt his car wasn't handling perfectly in Resolfen but a switch to softer springs restored his confidence in the Accent. E holds ninth overnight, less than 20 seconds clear of Kankkunen. The third Accent of Armin Schwarz was halted this morning - an exhaust-related problem caused a fire at the rear of the car and although the former European champion was able to extinguish the flames and return to service, Hyundai's team doctor believed that the German had inhaled too much smoke for him to continue.
Quotes: Freddy Loix said: "I've got quite good confidence in the car now, especially after that suspension change. There's not much more we can do except try to keep the same speed tomorrow. It looks like Harri will charge back past us but as we've seen today, anything can happen."
Technical: The Octavia WRCs of Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta have been generally reliable today, although both drivers felt that they were experiencing minor differential problems (centre and rear respectively) in the day's closing forest stages. Gardemeister also broke his windscreen on the same branch that caught out many of the top drivers. In a contrast to yesterday, meanwhile, Kenneth Eriksson's car performed without any major problems today.
Sporting: Young Finn Toni Gardemeister believes that he cannot extract much more performance from his Octavia WRC, but the young Finn ended today's forest stages unsure of his car's handling on hard, slippery surfaces. He started the final Cardiff superspecial in 12th. Kenneth Eriksson enjoyed a troublefree day after his glitches yesterday, and the veteran Swede used his improved reliability to move into 15th. His young team-mate Roman Kresta is less than half minute behind in 16th.
Quotes: Toni Gardemeister said: "When there is some gravel it's fine but as soon as the surface gets polished or greasy and hard, we just lose grip and the car starts to go all over the road. Maybe it's the front or centre differentials - I think we need to look at them closely. Of course I'm just trying flat out and we've had a few moments, but I'm reasonably happy."
Technical: The Lancer Evo WRCs of Francois Delecour and Jani Paasonen were reliable this morning, but both were ultimately forced to retire with accident damage in SS10.
Sporting: Mitsubishi lost both of its cars in the space of a few miles on today's third stage, Halfway. First, Finn Jani Paasonen was distracted by spectators flagging him down at the scene of Marcus Grönholm's accident and he slid off and rolled out at exactly the same place. Paasonen then complained of neck pains and he was taken to hospital as a precaution. Francois Delecour got through the same asphalt stretch without problems, but then he, too, slid off after his stand-in navigator Dominique Savignoni called a pacenote slightly too late over a crest. He clouted some rocks, damaging the front suspension of his car beyond repair. Quotes: Francois Delecour said: "There was no way I could possibly make the corner, because the note came just at the crest and we were in sixth gear at the time. There was a big, big rock on the outside of the corner and it hit the front suspension very hard. To be honest, I was waiting for another impact but it never came. It's disappointing, obviously, but I know this event hasn't been easy for Dominique."
Spanish driver Daniel Sola is on course to win the FIA Junior World Championship, since he held a comfortable category lead after today's last forest stage. The Citroen Saxo driver's title rival, Andrea Dallavilla, lost time with two punctures. The Italian wasn't alone in suffering deflations - challengers Niall McShea, Janne Tuohino and Gwyndaf Evans all suffered a similar fate.
16/11/2002 TODAY STATISTICS
STARTERS: 73 crews (55 Group A and 18 Group N) started this morning.
RETIREMENTS: Schwarz (D), Radstrom (S), Gronholm (FIN), Delecour (F), Paasonen (FIN), and 13 other drivers
Saturday 16 November
Leg 2 started from Cardiff at 06h00 and covered 508.39km, including 117.04km on six special stages.
Sunday 17 November
Leg 3 starts from Cardiff at 05h30 and covers 489.09km, including 138.50km on four special stages. The first car is expected to arrive at the finish ramp in Cardiff at 16h40.
WEATHER FORECAST: Scattered cloud and occasional heavy showers.