Colin McRae kick-started his bid for the FIA World Rally Championship by winning the fifth round of this year's series, the Rally Argentina, which finished in Cordoba this afternoon.
The Scot and navigator Nicky Grist had led from the start, and they paced themselves today to keep chief rival Richard Burns at bay without taking excessive risks. Burns claimed second, ahead of McRae's team-mate Carlos Sainz. The Spaniard fought through a painful back injury to bag the final podium position and close the gap to current series leader Tommi Mäkinen (who finished fourth in Argentina) to five points.
Today's stages, held in the mountains near El Condor, were among the toughest in the entire event and several of the sport's top stars hit trouble. Reigning world champion Marcus Grönholm retired with clutch difficulties after an accident, while Kenneth Eriksson and Didier Auriol both retired with mechanical problems.
The leading two Focus WRC01s - driven by Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz - suffered no major mechanical problems today, but François Delecour had to work on his during this morning's first pair of tests. A turbo pipe clip broke before the opening stage, allowing the pipe to come loose and the Focus to lose turbo boost. Although the Frenchman made temporary repairs before the stage, the pipe came loose after just four kilometres. But Delecour and navigator Daniel Grataloup effected more substantial repairs before the second test. Then on the second loop of stages, Delecour's car suffered a problem in its fly-by-wire throttle system. His problems prevented him from scoring a point.
Colin McRae started today with a useful lead and he was content to match Richard Burns's pace on some tests and take no risks in the more tricky sections. He still had nearly half a minute in hand at the finish to score his first win since the Acropolis Rally last June. Carlos Sainz felt slightly more comfortable with his back problems than yesterday. The Spaniard was unable to close the gap to the cars in front but equally, he came under no pressure from behind as he netted yet another podium finish. Francois Delecour's hopes of maintaining his run of points scores ended with mechanical problems this morning, but the Frenchman still finished seventh.
Colin McRae said: ''I'm glad that's over! You feel more pressure when you haven't won for so long. To grab the rally lead at the start and control the event like we did today is great. It just shows what we can do when we have a reliable package - the car's always competitive. The next two rallies in Cyprus and Greece tend to suit the Focus so hopefully this can be the start of a good run.''
Carlos Sainz added: ''The hardest part of the rally for me was yesterday morning, when I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep because of the pain. At that point, I even thought that finishing might be impossible, so to come out of this with a third place is a good result for me.''
Team boss Malcolm Wilson continued: ''I think this is one of Colin's best drives yet, right up there with Portugal 1999. It was a similar style of win, because he grabbed the initiative in the first day and just controlled the rally from the front. Of course he's got a chance of the championship now - the car looks competitive on almost every surface, and the next two rallies in Cyprus and Greece were good for us last year. We're also working already on improved asphalt performance for Sanremo and Corsica later in the season. I must also pay tribute to Carlos's drive, too - he struggled to get up yesterday with his back pain, but he still scored a podium finish.''
At Subaru the Impreza WRC2001s of Richard Burns and Petter Solberg
were generally reliable today, but Toshihiro Arai's example hit power steering problems on the second loop of stages.