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Panizzi wins Peugeot duel

1 October 2000


Team orders once again influenced the result of a round of the World Rally Championship, but produced an emotional home win for Peugeot and Gilles Panizzi.

The French tarmac expert had been recalled to the team to help bolster both its, and team-leader Marcus Gronholm's, championship challenges, and ended up leading a comprehensive 1-2-5 result. Panizzi did not have it all his own way, however, despite taking the majority of stage wins, as fellow countryman Francois Delecour remained on his tail right until the order to hold station arrived.

Regaining the initiative after falling behind Delecour overnight, Panizzi quickly opened up a gap at the head of the field on the opening stage of the day, and then consolidated his position with a series of consistent times around the tricky mountain roads of the Mediterranean island, putting himself into the pole seat for when the opposition stopped posing a threat to the two leading Peugeots.

This happened over stages 14 and 15, when Ford's Carlos Sainz, who had held a strong third place since the demise of team-mate Colin McRae, lost his power steering and conceded a further minute to the two pace-setters. With the pack closing in behind the Focus, it was a struggle for the Spaniard to hold onto his rostrum spot, but allowed the Peugeot team to call for positions to be maintained at the front.

''I have told both drivers that the positions are not to change, and that Gilles is to win,'' team boss Corrado Provera confirmed to the press, ''He has driven a fantastic rally and deserves his first WRC victory. We are happy, too, to take our first 1-2 finish.''

While the move naturally pleased Panizzi, Delecour was far from happy, having closed back to within a second of his team-mate by the end of SS14. Annoyed, he reluctantly agreed to allow Panizzi to win but, just to prove a point, promptly took the overall lead by blasting to a faster stage time than his rival on SS15!

''I'll let Gilles win if I am told to,'' he admitted, ''but I don't like team orders. I just don't understand why we must do this, because it is not sport.''

Abiding by the team's decision, however, Delecour ensured that he lost enough time over the final tests to put Panizzi back at the head of the field, while making sure that he did not fall back into the clutches of a recovering Sainz.

The Spaniard had conceded almost a minute to Subaru's Richard Burns during his steering dramas, but was flying again once it had been fixed at service. Fastest time on the streaming wet final stage proved his pace, but came too late to make any difference to the final result.

''The final stage was very difficult because it was raining heavily,'' said the 38-year-old, ''Before it started the team told me the roads were dry, but I told them I'd never seen dry roads running with water before! I think they told me it was dry to make me happy! We had to push hard, though, so as not to give Richard Burns any chance of catching us.''

Burns endured another up and down day at the wheel of his Impreza, winning stages 15 and 16, but struggling to feature in the top three of the others. The English driver was more mystified by the fact that he could not put his finger on any one reason for the failings, and concerned that his own championship chances could be further dented by the improving form of series leader Gronholm.

''I really don't know why I'm not setting faster times,'' he grimaced, ''I just can't have tried hard enough on the first stage today, but I pushed hard all through SS13 and still couldn't get it right. It seems that we're quite close to the Peugeots and Fords halfway through the stages, but then lose the time on the second half. It's a mystery, because the car doesn't feel like there's anything getting worse.''

By the end of the day, having won two stages, Burns was a little happier, and more confident that he could do something when the series reconvenes in Italy at the end of the month.

''I think we've learnt a fair bit here - it's been a while since we've done a tarmac rally, and we've done a lot of development since the [last one],'' he said, ''Perhaps we have found that there are places that we still need to do more work on, and we've got the chance to do that, so San Remo's looking better. We have not had any mechanical problems at all here. The only things we have had were perhaps some mistakes with the set-up when the conditions got tricky.''

Gronholm got close to the Subaru midway through the leg, but could not respond enough when Burns got the hammer down on 15 and 16, and had to be happy with fifth at the end after minor transmission problems interrupted his progress, despite a stage win on SS17. With McRae crashing out, however, and Burns finishing just a point ahead of him, only Sainz made any serious inroads into the Finn's advantage, leaving him more confident of edging towards the title in the coming rounds.

''It's a very useful result for me in the championship,'' Gronholm acknowledged, ''I always said that a points finish here would be excellent and we've come away with two points. Apart from learning the Corsican stages, I'm now feeling even more comfortable with the Peugeot on asphalt and I know that'll be useful in San Remo. I intend to try the same transmission set-up as both Francois and Gilles between now and then, to see if it makes any difference.''

Completing the point scorers at the end of the 18th - and final - stage, Piero Liatti reminded team bosses that he should not have discarded into the WRC wilderness several seasons ago. Drafted into the Ford squad to give it extra bite on the asphalt, the Italian fulfilled his role when McRae dropped out, standing him in good stead to replace the Scot should he be forced to miss San Remo.

''We had a few difficulties with the clutch on the final stage, but we overcame that and I'm really delighted,'' Liatti said, ''I have a very good set-up with the car and that makes me confident for my home rally in Italy later this month. We've also learned much about the team's new semi-automatic gearchange system, the sort of information you can only learn in competition.''

Just missing out on a world championship point, Subaru's own asphalt expert Simon Jean-Joseph also did enough to convince the team to include him in its Italian plans by notching a valuable Manufacturers' series score.

''I'm quite happy that I've finished the rally,'' he said understatedly, ''Two points for the manufacturer is good for us. This rally was very interesting for me, because I got to understand more about the car - it was my first Tour de Corse and I got to the finish. In San Remo I will try to do my best, and I will go there much more confident than I was here. I will try to do at least the same as I have done here - and why not better!''

Also missing out on drivers' points, but adding them to its meagre manufacturers' totals was SEAT. Didier Auriol, a six-times winner on the island was as relieved to have finally got the Cordoba WRC to the end of an event as he was to have picked up the team's first score for some time, and inspired the Spanish outfit with second fastest time to Sainz on the final test.

''The car worked well during the entire rally and, apart from some problems with the suspension and the engine power, it was good,'' the Frenchman related, ''The set-up on wet asphalt was also more competitive than on the dry, but it is very positive that we finished with both cars and that I scored one more point for SEAT.''

Team-mate Toni Gardemeister missed out on a top ten place by just 0.1secs, and had to be content with trailing French island experts Sebastien Loeb and Fabrice Morel across the line. Nevertheless, the young Finn had broken his retirement streak, and will head to Italy in greater heart.

Alister McRae plugged way at the wheel of the Hyundai accent but, hampered by the team's lack of tarmac knowledge, was unable to close on either Gardemeister or a championship point for the Malaysians. The Scot nevertheless felt that the car had improved over its debut showing in Spain, despite understeering, and suffered no mechanical problems on the event.

''The delay at the start of the day's second stage [SS14] meant we had to start on cold tyres, which didn't help us,'' he said, ''and there was also a lot of gravel and mud on the roads, thrown up by previous cars, which made things tricky. With the understeer, we knew we couldn't get close to the leader's pace, so we treated the rest of the event as a test for the up-coming San Remo rally and were trying various combinations of settings to get more grip. We managed to make real improvements to the car, and we know there is still more speed to be found. So now we'll be trying to get closer to the pace we've shown on gravel, to end the year with a bit of a boost.''

The delay to SS14 was caused by Tommi Makinen's exit from the rally - and the world championship battle. The Finn crashed out close to the spot where Mitsubishi team-mate Freddy Loix had done the same on day one, and the aftermath of his impact injured a photographer who had to receive attention before being moved. It was another disappointing end for the reigning champion, but Makinen had already admitted that he was unlikely to be able to challenge the Peugeots.

''I started to brake as we went into a tightening right corner, but too late, and the car went sideways and we slid off,'' he said, ''Already it was a bit over for us, and our target was to do some testing today. We thought we had a good chance here, but we just couldn't find the best performance. If you make a mistake in any event it can be a problem, but this rally - being based in the mountains - if something happens, it can be quite big. It's the most difficult tarmac rally.''

Manfred Stohl maintained his rally-long advantage in Group N to put a smile back on Mitsubishi's faces, and extend his championship lead over the similarly-mounted Gustavo Trelles into the bargain. The Argentine driver followed his Austrian rival across the line to claim second, with Jean-Marie Santoni reclaiming a podium spot on the last day from Krisztian Hideg.

The Teams' Cup success went to Hamed Al Wahaibi of the Arab World team, following the third leg demise of Serkan Yazici after an impact with an unknown object ripped the wheel of the leader's Toyota Corolla.

There was no such trouble at the front, however, and Panizzi was able to celebrate his recall to the Peugeot squad in style. Indeed, the only man not happy in the camp was Delecour, as Gronholm had much to be grateful for as he takes his championship lead to San Remo later in the month. Another display at the front from the acknowledged asphalt experts will be needed if the Finn is to take his championship advantage into the forests of Australia and Britain, and Panizzi aims to play his part to the full.

''The first victory at this level is like a dream for me,'' he bubbled, ''I always dreamt as a boy of driving a rally car, of winning the French championship, of winning my first world championship event. Now I've done them all. My next dream is to win in San Remo, and score as many points for Peugeot as possible. It's a terrific result for the whole team. I'm delighted.''


Stage winners - leg three.

SS13 Vero II (18.22km) Gilles Panizzi Peugeot 206 WRC 13mins 01.4secs
SS14 Lopigna II (29.96km) Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC 20mins 17.1secs
SS15 Bellevalle II (20.84km) Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 12mins 19.2secs
SS16 Filitosa II (22.47km) Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 14mins 03.5secs
SS17 Cuttoli II (17.34km) Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 11mins 31.1secs
SS18 Gare de Carbuccia II (20.04km) Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 12mins 55.8secs


Overall times after SS18

1. Gilles Panizzi Peugeot 206 WRC 04hrs 02mins 14.2secs +00mins 00.0secs
2. Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC 04hrs 02mins 47.7secs +00mins 33.5secs
3. Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 04hrs 03mins 26.8secs +01mins 12.6secs
4. Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 04hrs 03mins 45.1secs +01mins 30.9secs
5. Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 04hrs 04mins 11.3secs +01mins 57.1secs
6. Piero Liatti Ford Focus WRC 04hrs 05mins 08.0secs +02mins 53.8secs
7 Simon Jean-Joseph Subaru Impreza WRC 04hrs 05mins 23.7secs +03mins 09.5secs
8. Didier Auriol SEAT Cordoba WRC 04hrs 05mins 44.9secs +03mins 30.7secs
9. Sebastien Loeb Toyota Corolla WRC 04hrs 09mins 07.4secs +06mins 53.2secs
10. Fabrice Morel Peugeot 206 WRC 04hrs 09mins 34.6secs +07mins 20.4secs

11. Toni Gardemeister SEAT Cordoba WRC 04hrs 09mins 34.7secs +07mins 20.5secs
12. Alister McRae Hyundai Accent WRC 04hrs 11mins 14.9secs +09mins 00.7secs

Group N

17. Manfred Stohl Mitsubishi Carisma GT 04hrs 22mins 28.0secs +20mins 13.8secs
18. Gustavo Trelles Mitsubishi Lancer 04hrs 23mins 00.6secs +20mins 46.4secs
20. Jean-Marie Santoni Mitsubishi Carisma GT 04hrs 25mins 33.3secs +23mins 19.1secs

Retirements

Rtd. Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6 accident – SS13
Rtd Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC accident – SS10
Rtd Gianluigi Galli Mitsubishi Carisma GT retired – SS9
Rtd Kenneth Eriksson Hyundai Accent WRC clutch – SS2
Rtd Petter Solberg Subaru Impreza WRC2000 gearbox/OTL – SS2
Rtd Freddy Loix Mitsubishi Carisma GT accident – SS1

[Times courtesy Mitsubishi Motors]


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