Reigning FIA World Rally Champion Marcus Grönholm has charged into the lead of the penultimate round of this year's series, the Telstra Rally Australia, which started this morning.
The Peugeot driver arrived at this evening's Langley Park superspecial with a narrow lead over Richard Burns, Didier Auriol and Colin McRae after a close day's competition under baking hot sunshine. At the close of play - following the Langley Park superspecial (SS10) - he leads Burns by 3.6 seconds.
The notoriously slippery forests near the host city of Perth again penalised the early crews, but since new rules allowed the drivers to choose their starting position based on the championship standings, title hopefuls McRae and Burns were able to capitalise on roads swept clean by others. Joint series leader Tommi Mäkinen wasn't so fortunate - still suffering back pains after his accident in Corsica last month, the Finn could only manage sixth overall.
At Peugeot the four 206 WRCs have hit no major mechanical problems today, although both Harri Rovanperä and Marcus Grönholm felt that their gear ratios needed to be shorter to compensate for the deep, soft gravel. Grönholm was also troubled by front tracking which seemed to go out of line without him having hit anything.
Marcus Grönholm set fastest times on today's first two stages to move into the lead and the reigning world champion has swapped seconds with Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Didier Auriol all day. A late push this afternoon meant that the Finn ended the day holding a narrow lead, but he was unhappy with front tracking that kept going out of line and leaving his steering feeling vague. Auriol occupied third by the end after a troublefree day, meanwhile. Harri Rovanperä was less than satisfied with his 206's gear ratios but he still held fifth, while the fourth 206 WRC driver Gilles Panizzi was pleased to hold a top ten position - eighth - by the end of the day.
Marcus Gronholm said: ''I'm quite surprised our times are so good - firstly, because we're running ahead of all of our main rivals on the road, and secondly, because I'm not too happy with the car. It's not a serious problem but on virtually every stage today I got to the end and I knew it wasn't perfect. Something just isn't right in the steering. But if we can fix it, the situation looks good for us.''
Harri Rovanperä added: ''Some of the stages today were hard for me because it was my first time over them. Even though we have good pacenotes you still have to think twice at some jumps or blind corners. But we have to say the rally's started well for us.''
Didier Auriol concluded: ''We could see a clean line on many of the stages so we tried to take advantage of that and it worked. It's going well but there's still a long way to go.''
The Subaru Impreza WRC2001s of Richard Burns, Petter Solberg
and Toshihiro Arai have been generally reliable, although Burns was troubled by the car locking up and stalling momentarily during this morning's first loop of stages. Both he and Solberg have suffered a number of break-ups in the mousse anti-puncture inserts in their tyres, however.