Citroen driver Jesus Puras holds the upper hand on the 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Tour de Corse, which started from Ajaccio today.
The Spaniard mastered the twisty island roads to eke out a 10-second cushion over Frenchman Gilles Panizzi over the opening four stages. As in Sanremo two weeks ago, French manufacturers and tyre supplier Michelin have dominated the timesheets, with Panizzi's Peugeot team-mates Didier Auriol and Marcus Grönholm in third and fourth respectively at the end of today's action.
The highest-placed championship contender is Colin McRae in 11th, but two of his rivals have already retired. Carlos Sainz damaged his Ford's sump guard and stopped with low oil pressure this morning, while joint series leader Tommi Mäkinen crashed heavily in SS5 and retired on the spot. His accident caused the stage to be cancelled, so today's results were formed from the opening four stages.
Jesus Puras's Citroen
Xsara WRC has been reliable today. Philippe Bugalski's example retired with front suspension damage after the Frenchman clipped a wall on today's opening stage.
Bugalski was the first major retirement this morning, when the Frenchman clipped a wall barely one kilometre into the opening stage and retired on the spot with front-end damage. Jesus Puras has fared better - the Spaniard grabbed the lead on the second stage and held it to the fifth, although his hopes of keeping the lead overnight hung in the balance until event stewards decided to completely cancel the fifth stage after Tommi Mäkinen's accident. That means that Puras will start tomorrow's second leg with a 10.5 second lead over Gilles Panizzi.
Puras said: ''It's going very well and the car feels absolutely fantastic but I've been in this position before. I know what it feels like to lead a rally - now I want to know what it feels like to win one. It's just about concentrating on the next stage and never thinking about what's just happened. That way you can stay motivated and keep sharp.''
At Peugeot the three 206 WRCs of Gilles Panizzi, Didier Auriol and Marcus Grönholm have been reliable today, although Auriol and Grönholm both suffered from punctures in the opening stage. Panizzi was far from happy with his car's handling for much of the day, but suspension changes left him more satisfied on the final loop of tests. Grönholm's cause hasn't been helped by a cracked windscreen either.
Panizzi led after today's first stage but the Sanremo winner was soon bumped down to third by Jesus Puras and Didier Auriol, as he struggled to find confidence in his car's handling. He was even less pleased after the day's longer stage but then he recovered, inching past his team-mate into second overall prior to the ill-fated fifth stage. Puncture aside, Auriol has been satisfied with progress as he held third going into SS5, while Grönholm occupied fourth. The world champion was concerned that handling glitches has left him nearly a minute behind Panizzi, though.
Gilles Panizzi said: ''The times have been good but it's been very difficult. The car in the long stage just wasn't the Peugeot 206 that I know - it was basically 36km of understeer and that wasn't fun. I had to use the handbrake about 10 times just to get the car turned into corners. I think we can take the fight to Jesus Puras a bit more tomorrow but he and Didier are both pushing hard. It's going to be a good fight.''