One up, one down for Peugeot
15 July 2000
The overnight rain, feared by many of the drivers who had their opening day ruined by treacherous roads, thankfully did not materialise as the 63 remaining crews made their way out of their Auckland base and on to Waipu Gorge for the first of Saturday's nine special stages.
Overnight leader Francois Delecour had been one of the few drivers who had half been hoping for rain, thus nullifying much of the immediate disadvantage he was in, acting as road-sweeper for the others along the gravel filled roads.
Behind the Frenchman, Colin McRae and Richard Burns, lying sixth and eighth respectively, licked their lips at the prospect of finally being able to attack the stages on relatively clear roads.
As expected Delecour lost time to his followers on the opening eleven kilometre test and his lead had been pegged back to just five seconds by the end of the stage. However his closest pursuer was no longer Ford's Petter Solberg who had taken things very cautiously, but his Peugeot team-mate Marcus Gronholm. Third onto the highly dusty road, the Finnish star threw caution to the wind and really laid into the stage. Numerous hairy moments and lurid powerslides followed but the result was a glorious time of 6 minutes 35.2 seconds, a mark beaten only by Richard Burns and (only just) Colin McRae.
If Peugeot had been concerned over team orders on the upcoming stages, they needn't have for on the very next stage Delecour ground to a halt with no gears available. Ten minutes were lost before the problem was solved and at that point, continuing on the event was pointless.
Delecour's demise was not only bad news for Peugeot, but also for Solberg who was now first on the road. Once again the Ford man lost time to Gronholm on stage ten and was 15 seconds behind the Peugeot man after just two of the days nine stages. There was also the small matters of team orders to consider as Carlos Sainz had now moved into third place and Colin McRae was flying and gaining ground on the leaders.
Coincidence or not, at the end of the eleventh stage, Solberg suffered a late mechanical drama and was forced to leave the service area two minutes late. This would have put Gronholm in the position of road-sweeper for the 59 kilometre stage at Parahi. However the rally officials insisted that the cars were to be sent out in their original order leaving Solberg with a 20 second penalty to add to his woes.
As the teams readied themselves for the longest stage on the Championship, Sainz had already moved himself into second place, albeit nearly a minute behind the sensational Gronholm who had posted third fastest time on all three of the days stages thus far, no mean achievement under the circumstances. However the men really on the move were Burns and McRae who had finished one-two in the first three stages of the day. As they prepared themselves for the mammoth test, the Subaru and Ford were just behind Solberg and gaining on the leader.
The result of the Parahi test looked strangely familiar at the top with Burns beating out McRae by seven seconds after more than half an hour of intense driving. Once again Gronholm clung on for third place, 15 seconds behind the second placed Focus although his lead had now been reduced to a mere 19 seconds.
The rain, which had yet to materialise, put in a brief appearance as the leaders negotiated stage 13 at Cassidy. It may have only been a token appearance but it still had a dramatic effect for some drivers, notably Burns and Freddie Loix in the Mitsubishi Carisma.
Burns was caught out on a slippery section of road and spun, fortunately without damage. The delay was sufficient enough to allow McRae to snatch the stage win and let Gronholm increase his lead slightly.
For Loix though, the problem was more serious for after charging through the opening four stages of the day, the problematic differential once again rose its ugly head, no doubt helped by the slippery conditions, and caused the Belgian driver to spin twice. With no guarantee that the rain would not appear again, nor that the problem would go away, Mitsubishi reluctantly withdrew the car in the interests of safety. A tough yet correct decision.
Stage 14 at Batley was the last where Gronholm's position would be a disadvantage. The teams would return to Auckland along the same route (minus Parahi) that they travelled earlier in the day, the roads by now clear of gravel.
This represented the last chance for McRae and Burns to use their position to their advantage and both drivers attacked the stage with immense vigour. The Ford man was quickest by three seconds over Burns although Gronholm was once again snapping at the heels of both men. As the competitors moved back to Waipu Gorge, Gronholm's lead was 16 seconds.
It was on the final three stages of the day that Gronholm really showed what he could do, annexing top spot on all three occasions. Burns and McRae traded places for second and third fastest times behind the silver Peugeot but they had no answer to the Finnish star.
By the time the 52 surviving crews pulled into Auckland for the overnight break Gronholm had stretched his lead to a more comfortable 23 seconds over McRae, not enough to relax but enough to avoid taking silly risks. The elder McRae meanwhile had extended his lead over Burns to 15 seconds, a lead he may need as he now has to run second on the road, behind Gronholm, for the final seven stages of the event.
Sainz spent much of the day fighting with the suspension set-up of his Focus and was still not convinced that he had solved the problem as he arrived at the overnight halt. The Spaniard had dropped more than a minute behind the leader although cleaner roads may give him a chance to make a late challenge on Sunday.
Juha Kankkunen continued his steady and unspectacular progress in the second factory Impreza. The Finnish veteran had no major dramas and lost only seven seconds to Sainz all day and is now more than a minute ahead of the following Solberg who endured another eye opening World Rally experience.
SEAT lost their remaining Cordoba WRC on stage 16 when Didier Auriol rolled into retirement, thankfully without any injury. It was just as well that this rally is the final event for the Cordoba WRC E2 before it is replaced with the E3 model as the team would have had their work cut out trying to salvage anything raceworthy from their two New Zealand wrecks.
The tail end of the top ten at the end of day two was filled by Kenneth Eriksson, Tommy Makinen, Alister McRae and Possum Bourne. Eriksson used his immense WRC experience to good use in the tricky conditions and was able to retain his seventh place while the younger McRae in the sister Hyundai Accent really got stuck in and moved up from his overnight twelfth spot, 13 seconds behind the reigning World Champion.
The demise of the ageing Mitsubishi Lancer has been gradually gathering pace in recent events and Saturday was a prime example of how the team have simply worn out all possibilities for improvement. The opening day's handling problems that Makinen suffered, were lessened when the team reverted to the previous year's suspension settings although Makinen could still not match the pace of the leaders. Running on a relatively clear road, the four time champion was at a loss to explain his lack of speed and could only plug on as best he could. By the end of the day he was more than three minutes behind Gronholm and struggling to hold of A, McRae.
Behind the factory cars, Bourne's Subaru Impreza continued to lead the privateers, easily holding off Group N leader Manfred Stohl. Group N witnessed a titanic struggle throughout the day between Stohl, overnight leader Cody Crocker, Gustavo Trelles and Hamed Al Wahaibi in the battle for the last five places inside the top fifteen.
Crocker started the day just ahead of Toshihiro Arai in 14th place and over half a minute ahead of his nearest class rival Stohl. The Japanese driver's challenge ended when he rolled his Impreza on stage 12 although he continued until stage 15, leaving Crocker to defend his place against an inspired Stohl.
Stohl overhauled Crocker on the mammoth twelfth stage and pulled into a clear lead before a minor problem on stage 14 brought the charging Al Wahaibi to within three seconds of him.
A Wahaibi then laid into Stohl and looked to have snatched the class lead as the day reached its final few stages until a late problem cost him four minutes. Stohl could still not afford to breathe easy though as Crocker and Trelles both remained within a minute of the Carisma driver. At the end of the day Stohl was eleventh overall, Crocker 13th and Trelles 14th.
Stage winners – Rally New Zealand – Leg two:
SS9 Waipu Gorge Richard Burns 6 mins 32.8secs
SS10 Brooks Richard Burns 9 mins 49.9secs
SS11 Paparoa Station Richard Burns 6 mins 18.5secs
SS12 Parahi Richard Burns 34 mins 04.5secs
SS13 Cassidy Colin McRae 11 mins 35.9secs
SS14 Batley Colin McRae 11 mins 09.0secs
SS15 Waipu Gorge 2 Marcus Gronholm 6 mins 33.9secs
SS16 Brooks 2 Marcus Gronholm 9 mins 56.8secs
SS17 Paparoa Station 2 Marcus Gronholm 6 mins 24.5secs
Rally Leaders - Leg Two:
1. Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 2hr 59mins 58.6secs +00mins 00.0secs
2. Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC 3hr 00mins 21.5secs +00mins 22.9secs
3. Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 3hr 00mins 36.0secs +00mins 37.4secs
4. Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 3hr 01mins 08.8secs +01mins 10.2secs
5 Juha Kankkunen Subaru Impreza WRC 3hr 01mins 37.6secs +01mins 39.0secs
7. Petter Solberg Ford Focus WRC 3hr 02mins 48.9secs +02mins 50.3secs
6 Kenneth Eriksson Hyundai Accent WRC 3hr 03mins 05.4secs +03mins 06.8secs
8. Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6 3hr 03mins 13.9secs +03mins 15.3secs
9. Alister McRae Hyundai Accent WRC 3hr 03mins 27.5secs +03mins 28.9secs
10. Possum Bourne Subaru Impreza WRC98 3hr 05mins 54.0secs +05mins 55.4secs
12. Geoff Argyle Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 09mins 56.7secs +09mins 58.1secs
19. Bruce Herbert Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 13mins 54.6secs +13mins 56.0secs
Rtd. Toshiro Arai Subaru Impreza
Rtd Didier Auriol SEAT Cordoba WRC accident – stage sixteen
Rtd Freddy Loix Mitsubishi Carisma GT withdrawn – stage thirteen
Rtd Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC gearbox – stage ten
Rtd Toni Gardemeister SEAT Cordoba WRC accident - stage one
11. Manfred Stohl Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 09mins 44.4secs +09mins 45.8secs
13. Cody Crocker Subaru Impreza 3hr 10mins 05.4secs +10mins 06.8secs
14. Gustavo Trelles Subaru Impreza 3hr 10mins 35.2secs +10mins 36.6secs
21. Hamed Al Wahaibi Subaru Impreza 3hr 14mins 50.0secs +14mins 51.4secs
[Times courtesy Mitsubishi Motors]