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One down but Citroen still on top

24 March 2001

French manufacturers Citroen and Peugeot are dominating the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rallye Catalunya-Costa Brava, which continued in northern Spain today.

Local Citroen driver Jesus Puras occupied the top position, until he retired with low fuel pressure leaving the lead to his French team-mate Philippe Bugalski. But the Peugeots of Didier Auriol and Gilles Panizzi remain in touch, ahead of four-times world champion Tommi Mäkinen.

Again encouraged by sunny skies, huge crowds flocked to the fast asphalt roads south of Tarragona to catch the action. Too big in fact, SS12 was cancelled due to volume of spectators present on the final stage of the second leg.

In contrast to yesterday, the roads around Tarragona were much more abrasive and, while still dry, posed a threat to tyre wear and tear in ever increasing temperatures. Michelin is however winning the tyre war with all the leading crews, as Pirelli's highest runner is currently fifth.

On asphalt rallies, brake cooling is another significant factor because, typically, the braking materials can run at between 700 and 750 degrees Centigrade. Without effective cooling, performance deteriorates significantly.

Citroen:

Fastest time on this morning's opening stage increased Jesus Puras's overnight lead but he spun and stalled on the second test, handing team-mate Philippe Bugalski another sniff of victory.

The Frenchman responded, setting fastest time on the first run through the day's longest stage to grab the lead. Throughout their battle, the two Xsara WRC's have pulled further clear of the Peugeots of Didier Auriol and Gilles Panizzi.

The main Xsara WRC's problem today has been stopping: Philippe Bugalski complained of a long brake pedal on this morning's opening stage, and the problem recurred during the day's longest test.

''I'm pleased to be in the fight for victory but it's very hard to have confidence when the brake problems are continuing,” confirmed Bugalski. “The team has been trying everything to fix the brakes but so far, it keeps coming back. I know I could push a little harder if we solve this.''

Jesus Puras, meanwhile, had to pump his brake pedal for more than 15km of SS9 after it went to the floor. ''The brake problem was not so nice, because it was hard to commit to corners when you don't know if the car's going to stop,'' explained Puras.

However, he was forced to retire after SS11, when his Xsara WRC stopped with low fuel pressure.

Peugeot:

The 206 WRCs of Didier Auriol and Gilles Panizzi haven't been able to catch either of the Citroens today, but they have remained a match for rivals from Mitsubishi, Ford and Subaru.

Auriol has stayed closest to Bugalski and Puras and the 1994 world champion is still charging for the lead. ''All I can do is keep trying,” said Auriol. “Today's been quite good for me because at least I have a bit more of a lead over Gilles, but Bugalski is probably too far ahead now. I won't give up - of course not - but it looks like second for me unless something happens to him.''

Third-placed Panizzi, however, is not yet completely clear of a threat from Tommi Mäkinen.

''In the long stage, I attacked more than I've done on any other stage of the rally. When I crossed the line, (navigator) Herve told me he thought the time would be good and I agreed. But then I saw the leading three cars' times and I couldn't understand it. Of course I'll keep trying, but I don't think we can catch them,'' admitted Panizzi.

Mitsubishi:

Tommi Makinen has been pushing hard today, but the mighty French manufacturers, who excel on the surface adopted for their national championship, continue to hold the leading three positions. Makinen is however now in a position to fight with asphalt expert Gilles Panizzi, the Peugeot driver holding a mere 12 second advantage going into the final day of competition.

''We've been pushing very hard today, even too much in places,'' commented Tommi. ''The corners are very slippy and it's very difficult to find the same speed as the French cars on Tarmac. It was our target to try and catch Gilles Panizzi today but, with the cancellation of the final stage, we need to put that off for tomorrow. It seems very difficult at the moment as everyone is driving very fast and at times we are wondering what the cars in front are doing with the tyres. It seems we were on the same ones, but it's working a bit better for them at times, I think.''

Mitsubishi Carisma GT team-mates Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets continue to put in a fine performance in one of their favoured events. The Belgians held sixth until Carlos Sainz and Francois Delecour powered their Ford's ahead, but the trio are locked in a battle and split by just three seconds at the end of a day when thousands of fans have once again witnessed world-class action.

''There's been a lot of gravel on the stages but it's the same for everybody,'' said Freddy. ''We're pushing very hard to try and get back ahead of the Ford boys, but they've been a bit quicker. It's not over yet and we hope we can find the same speed as yesterday.''

Adding to their comments, Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart team manager George Donaldson said: ''It's been a tough day but we've performed consistently. We knew it would be hard here, but this is the World Championship - we never thought it would be easy. Road conditions tomorrow are totally different and we're back to something we were very comfortable on yesterday. Freddy's in a fantastic battle and both he and Tommi will continue to fight for points-scoring positions.''

Ford:

Ford Martini drivers Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya and team-mates François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup fought back during today's second leg of Spain's Catalunya Rally to climb into the all-important points-scoring positions.
They shrugged off yesterday's time-consuming difficulties to move up to fifth and sixth respectively in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars after one of the longest days in the FIA World Rally Championship calendar.

Technicians worked through the night to investigate the fuel pressure problem which slowed Sainz and Delecour yesterday and was also responsible for the retirement of team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist. They discovered that the pressure release valve in the cars' fuel pumps had been set to the wrong pressure.

“It's an internal part of the pump delivered to us as a sealed unit by the manufacturer,” explained Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson. “We fitted pumps from an older batch to Carlos' and François' cars and had no problems with either today. We've made some performance gains and moved both cars up into the points and yesterday I thought there was little chance of that happening,” he added.

The two Focus RS drivers swapped places three times during the day as the duo were never split by more than five seconds. Their pace took both past Freddy Loix and into the top six and, with Richard Burns also climbing back up the order, the foursome will start tomorrow's third and final leg of this fourth event of the 14-round series covered by only 22.3sec.

As mentioned, the asphalt on today's stages was more abrasive than that of yesterday and the liberal covering of gravel, dragged onto the roads by cars cutting corners, increased tyre wear. However, both Sainz and Delecour were encouraged by the improved grip offered by Pirelli's rubber on the dirty tests.

“We're still learning about Pirelli's tyres on dry asphalt but the grip and the day as a whole has been better with no real problems to speak of,” said 38-year-old Sainz. “I'm not sure we can improve our position tomorrow but I think there will be a big battle for fifth and sixth with four of us chasing the points. It's all very tight.”

Delecour was happy to see the cancellation of the last test as a cracked sump, caused by a heavy landing in the previous stage, was allowing oil to leak out. His only other concern today was a tyre vibration on the opening test, caused after he clipped a kerb and dislodged Pirelli's EMI anti-deflation system in his rear left tyre.

“The roads have been covered in a lot of dirt and at times it's been like a gravel rally,” said 38-year-old Delecour. “But it's been good to have no real problems and be able to push hard. Tomorrow's stages are in the same area as yesterday's and will be just as slippery. I'm not sure we can catch Carlos but I'm looking forward to trying and we'll push as hard as we can.”

Subaru:

With a more reliable car under him, Richard Burns started to inch towards his realistic target of a points position. But although his times compared more favourably with the leaders than yesterday, he still had Carlos Sainz, Francois Delecour, and Freddy Loix standing in his way. And like many, he was becoming concerned by spectator control.

“We've snatched 40s off Freddy today, taken quite a few risks and had some close shaves in the process, but that is to be expected,” said Burns. “Carlos and François will be tougher to catch, but that's still my aim. We've had no technical problems at all, even though the car has taken a hell of a pounding underneath as you have to cut every single corner, and there's stones and gravel everywhere. The crowds were getting dangerous, and although we wanted the mileage, the organisers made the right decision to cancel SS12 .”

Team-mate Markko Martin continued to suffer from ignition and gearbox problems, however: his Impreza cut out more than five times in the first run over today's longest stage, and he had to jam the 'box in third on a few occasions. These problems would drop him out of the top ten.

”Today has been one of the most difficult I can remember – we've had problems all day, and it is difficult to develop a rhythm or any confidence, so even when the car has behaved, we have suffered the odd spin, like on SS11,” said the unhappy Estonian.

Skoda:

After yesterday's encouraging start to the all-asphalt Rally of Spain that saw both Skoda Octavia WRC's challenging for a top ten position at the completion of leg one, today's daunting 900km and 16-hour schedule took its toll on Skoda Motorsport.

Belgian crew Bruno Thiry/Stephane Prevot lost time on this morning's opening three stages with tyre related vibrations costing the Belgian around 30 seconds. Such is the closeness of the competition within the upper echelons of the FIA World Rally Championship that the time lost dropped Thiry down the leader-board.

However, faster times in the afternoon plus the misfortune of others, moved the Octavia back into the top ten and within striking distance of a points finish by the time the day's final stage was cancelled on grounds of safety due to an excessive numbers of spectators.

''You need to cut the corners and therefore you are always running the risk of punctures and wheel damage,'' says the 38-year-old Skoda ace. ''Although the Michelin ATS mousse system worked well to prevent deflation, the resulting vibration was pretty bad. We were also forced to slow down at the end of today's third stage by spectators running around in the road – the situation was very dangerous. Otherwise the Skoda has run well all day. This is my first event in the car on dry asphalt – I'm benefiting from experience and I'm sure all the lessons we are learning will help us in the future.''

Having started today in 12th place after a trouble-free on the open leg, the second Octavia of Armin Schwarz/Manfred Hiemer was forced to retire from the Iberian event with power steering problems.

''About 30km into this morning's long road section, the steering started to lock solid in certain positions, so we radioed ahead and the team's technicians changed the complete steering rack during the 10-minute service halt before the first stage,'' explained Schwarz. ''But the problem returned almost immediately. We started the stage but, for obvious reasons, it wasn't safe to push hard. Then, about 17km into the stage, the steering jammed on a straight and it just wasn't possible to continue any further. It's a bit of a mystery as we have never experienced this kind of problem before.''

Hyundai:

Hyundai continues to gain valuable data on how the latest evolution Accent works on asphalt, but neither Alister McRae or Piero Liatti has been able to break into the top ten positions.

Piero Liatti's Accent WRC2 has however been generally reliable today, but Alister McRae's example suffered from an overheating wastegate on this morning's opening pair of stages. Disabling the car's anti-lag system helped ease the problem, and the unit was changed at service.

''The wastegate problem meant I had to rev the engine very hard to get any boost at all, which was frustrating,” explained McRae. “It's heat-related so switching off the anti-lag system helped but it cost us a lot of time.''

Other news:

Engine problems hampered the overnight leader in the FIA Super 1600 Cup section, Frenchman Sebastian Loeb. He changed a faulty crank sensor after today's first stage but the time lost already dropped him behind local driver Sergio Vallejo. Giandomenico Basso should have been ideally placed to capitalise but the Fiat driver lost a tyre on a rock.

François Duval (B) drove superbly as his Ford Puma climbed back from 15th to seventh in just three stages this morning following a puncture yesterday. He was twice third fastest before the youngster hit an oil patch and went off the road and retired on stage 10.

Patrick Magaud (F) powered his Puma up to third before retiring with engine failure on the same stage. Martin Stenshorne (N) kept the Ford flag flying in fifth on a day of high attrition in the category which has seen the 23 starters reduced to only nine.

Tomorrow's Route:

The final leg returns to the Girona region, north of Barcelona. After leaving Lloret de Mar at 06.45, drivers face a final two loops of three stages, covering 118.40km, before returning to the Costa Brava seaside resort for the finish at 16.56. The weather is forecast to be much cooler with temperatures down to 8°C, but still dry.



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