Burns charge to be in vain?
26 November 2000
Richard Burns capitalised on Colin McRae's dramatic exit from the Rally of Great Britain to take a commanding 20 second lead into the final day of action in the Welsh forests but title rival Marcus Gronholm is perfectly placed to take his first World Title for Peugeot.
It was still dark when the 126 surviving entrants left Rally HQ in Cardiff on Saturday morning for the first of six special stages, totalling more than 100 competitive stage miles on day two of the Network Q Rally of Great Britain.
Conditions were the same, if not worse than they had been on Friday and it was clear that the Welsh forest roads were going to be very slippery, muddy and treacherous for even the most experienced of campaigners as rain, mist and wind continued to batter the Welsh countryside.
Overnight leader Colin McRae was understandably cautious on the first stage of the day, a 26-kilometre test in the Rhondda valley, and was third behind Richard Burns and 2000 Champion elect Marcus Gronholm. The Scot may have lost little more than three seconds to stage winner Richard Burns and his gap to Gronholm was still a comfortable 18 seconds but the way in which the English Subaru driver manhandled his Impreza along the tight roads gave warning that if the Ford Focus driver wanted to retain his lead he would have to fight for it.
Peugeot 206 WRC pilot Gronholm admitted that he would be taking things easy on the longest day of the rally but even so the Finn was only two seconds off Burns' mark. Gronholm was already looking back to the 40-second cushion that separated him from fourth placed Tommi Makinen in the overall classification, safe in the knowledge that neither the four time World Champion or fifth placed Carlos Sainz in the second Focus were in a position to challenge the top three.
Rhondda sadly saw the demise of Welshman Gwyndaf Evans, whose SEAT Cordoba broke it's clutch mid stage and forced the veteran out of the event before he could reach the start of the tenth stage.
Stage Ten at Rhoela was where Tommi Makinen's day began to go downhill as the Mitsubishi Lancer driver slid wide and clouted a tree, the offending object causing some serious cosmetic damage to the front of the Lancer and costing its driver more than half a minute as he dropped behind Sainz in the battle for fourth place overall.
Some way ahead of the outgoing Champion, McRae was back into a rhythm and took the stage by a tenth of a second over Burns. Yes, one tenth of a second over 31.47kms of narrow, twisty, slippery, muddy roads, not bad. Both were comfortably clear of the rest of the field, headed by Gronholm and team-mate Gilles Panizzi and as Gronholm completed the stage there was an audible sigh of relief from the entire Peugeot team as this was the stage that claimed the Finnish star last year.
Didier Auriol still clung to sixth overall in the fastest of the three remaining SEAT machines although Harri Rovenpera took sixth on SS10 and was threatening Markko Martin for a place in the top ten.
Auriol however was not pleased with his car and on the next stage, a 46 kilometre test through Resolfen providing the longest stage of the entire rally, the French veteran's Cordoba dropped onto just two cylinders and he instantly dropped out of the points, behind both Francois Delecour and Juha Kankkunen.
There were no such problems for McRae who won his second consecutive stage by a whole one second from the charging Burns who had now clawed his way back to within 15 seconds of Gronholm in the overall classification after another circumspect effort from the Peugeot man which netted him fourth place on the stage behind Delecour but ahead of nearest rivals Makinen and Sainz, both of whom were not happy with the handling of their cars.
Consistently impressive in the opening three stages of the day was the third Subaru Impreza of Petter Solberg who had vaulted from an overnight position of 18th to 14th after putting in consistently quick times. Ninth on SS11, the young star had more than a minute to make up before he could overhaul Toni Gardemeister in the slowest of the remaining factory Cordoba's but he, like Burns, was tackling each stage with tremendous confidence and both were a joy to watch despite the miserable conditions.
Stage twelve saw the cars return to Rhoela for another crack and it was here that the entire complexion of the rally changed for as McRae was trying to negotiate a quick right-hander that cut back deceptively on itself, he put one wheel of the Focus off the track and was thrown into a ditch were the car proceeded to barrel roll before coming to rest right side up in a blinding cloud of smoke. Valiantly both McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist attempted to carry on but the radiator and coolers were too badly damaged and the car was officially retired little more than a mile on from the accident scene.
All this drama left Gronholm in the lead but again Burns cut another chunk out of his advantage as he romped to his second win of the day ahead of the impressive Solberg and Kankkunen in a Subaru clean sweep. Gronholm and Delecour were fourth and fifth but the team formation was broken by privateer Markko Martin in the Team Sweden Toyota Corolla who finished the stage in a fine sixth position and continued to hold down a top ten place in the first non-factory machine.
The final forest stage of the day was set around the picturesque Margam Park stately grounds and once again it was Burns who was in control, winning by a comfortable seven seconds from Sainz who was still not at all happy with the performance of his Focus. Burns also erased the three-second deficit to Gronholm who continued to take things easy and cruised to fifth fastest, dropping to second overall behind Burns in the process.
Sainz' good run brought him back ahead of the troubled Makinen by just one second in their ongoing battle for fourth while third fastest time for Kankkunen gave him some breathing room in fifth place ahead of Delecour and Panizzi, both of whom have blown hot and cold throughout the first two days of competition.
Makinen was lucky to be in the rally at all on a day where he left the road no less than three times in a car that simply would not behave how Tommi wanted it to, suspension gremlins being blamed as the reason behind Makinen's unusual erratic form.
Of course slippery roads contributed to the amount of spins seen amongst the leading runners and there was no sign of a let up in the rain during the day as driver after driver found themselves just overstepping the mark on at least one occasion.
One driver who wasn't suffering from the conditions was Estonia's Markko Martin who continued to hold down eighth overall ahead of Auriol who soldiered on manfully despite having a sick engine for much of the day.
Harri Rovanpera completed the top ten at the end of the day and is more than a minute clear of the surviving Hyundai of Alister McRae who spent the second half of the day trying to cure an alarming oil pressure problem. At one point McRae and co-driver David Senior resorted to using a T-Shirt to try and block the leak until the car got to the service area but even after the mechanics fixed the problem, the younger McRae had to drive the Margam stage with a broken sump guard.
Gardemeister also had an interesting day on his way to an overnight position of twelfth as on SS10 he suddenly found the bonnet of the SEAT obscuring his view entirely after flying open and smashing the windscreen. After Gardemeister had stopped to put some water in the car, he and co-driver Paavo Lukander failed to fasten the bonnet properly with the inevitable result costing the pair a possible top ten overnight slot.
Petter Solberg came out of the forests in a very respectable 13th position, Subaru's latest star having only been outside the top ten on the opening stage of the day in his first experience of the Welsh weather while Armin Schwarz plugged on gamely in the leading Skoda in 14th ahead of Henning Solberg's Toyota and the final factory runner, Luis Climent.
Manfred Stohl leads Group N by a comfortable three minutes over Kenneth Backlund and Olli Harkki as Gustavo Trelles hit mechanical problems and dropped down the order. British hopes were also given a boost when both Vauxhall Astra kit cars made their way into the top 20 after stage 12. However both Mark Higgins and Neil Wearden struck trouble on the Margam Park stage and dropped back to 22nd and 28th overall respectively as the cars returned to Cardiff for the second visit to the 2.43 km Superspecial.
Conditions this time by were arguably worse than they had been on Thursday evening and many of the leading runners erred on the side of caution on a stage where very little time could be gained. Indeed the top 20 overall remained the same as it at the end of SS13 as less than half a minute separated the top 25 runners.
One driver who threw caution to the wind in the final head to head test was Petter Solberg who emerged from the gloom a full four seconds quicker than anyone else to take his first stage win of the day while Burns, Kankkunen, the oft delayed Tapio Laukkanen and Schwarz completed the top five.
Makinen was only seventh and Sainz eighth while Gronholm lost a lot of time with a lurid slide on one of the courses hairpins and could only manage 17th quickest time.
Burns holds a secure 20 second lead over Gronholm as the cars head into the final day of competition but unless the Peugeot strikes trouble it looks as though it will really be a bridge too far for the Englishman who was simply sublime all day in the dark blue Impreza. However as this event has shown in the past, the championship is not over until the winning car has crossed the line and Burns will still be going flat out on Sunday to put the win beyond doubt and put some pressure on the Peugeot team who simply have to get Gronholm to the finish.