Frenchman Sebastien Loeb
and Finn Tommi Mäkinen are locked in battle at the front of the opening round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship, the Rallye Monte Carlo, which continued today.
Reigning World Junior Champ Loeb, who hit the top of the leaderboard yesterday, extended his advantage this morning with a fastest time on the day's second stage. But as the event moved to more traditional stages, such as the famous run over the Col de Turini, Mäkinen (Rallye Monte Carlo winner for the past three years) began to close the gap between the pair once more. They entered this evening's final two stages separated by less than half a minute and although Loeb extended his lead in SS10, Makinen responded immediately in the final stage by cutting it back to 28.2 seconds.
There have been clear blue skies over the French mountains again today, but conditions on the roads themselves have ranged from dry asphalt to sheet ice and greasy frost. The tricky Alpine passes caught out a number of crews, including Skoda's Roman Kresta and Peugeot driver Harri Rovanpera. They both retired with suspension and steering damage, but Subaru's Petter Solberg, Ford's Carlos Sainz and Mitsubishi's Alister McRae were all able to continue after slight 'offs'.
Xsara WRC of Sebastien Loeb
has run without major technical problems today. Sebastien Loeb
consolidated his overnight advantage on this morning's opening stage, virtually matching nearest challenger Tommi Mäkinen. And then the Frenchman charged again on SS7 - a repeat of the test where he'd done so much damage to his opposition yesterday evening. He scalped another 11s from Mäkinen to arrive at lunchtime service back in Monaco more than half a minute clear.
But the afternoon stages were not so kind to the reigning world Junior champion - Mäkinen inched closer over the Col de Turini to bring Loeb's lead down to just under 27s and although Loeb extended the advantage to 35.7 seconds after SS10, Makinen immediately cut it back on SS11 - the final of the day.
Sebastien Loeb said: ''It's been going pretty well today but this afternoon was very difficult for us. I just think that the greasy, wet conditions seem to suit one of the Pirelli tyres very well and that's been the main difference. I'm just trying to keep my concentration, not make a mistake and see what happens. Last night and this morning were good, though - I realised that I could attack at maximum in one particular stage that I drove on a French championship event quite recently, and that allowed me to build a lead.''
At Subaru Tommi Mäkinen was less than satisfied with his tyre choice on this morning's opening pair of stages, but the four-times world champion's Impreza has been reliable. Petter Solberg's example enjoyed a troublefree morning until the Norwegian slid wide on loose gravel in SS7 and hit a wall. He damaged the car's steering rack and power steering pump, and then picked up 20s of penalties after Subaru mechanics needed 22 minutes in the following service to fix the problem.
Any hopes Tommi Mäkinen had of putting young leader Sebastien Loeb
under early-morning pressure were hampered when the Finn picked too soft a tyre for today's opening pair of stages. He ended up ceding a further 10s to Loeb before lunchtime service. But an inspired choice of rubber for the following two tests allowed Mäkinen to respond - a pair of fastest times this afternoon moved him back to within half a minute of the lead and situation that remained the same after SS11 (the final stage of the day).
Petter Solberg set fastest time on this morning's first stage but in the second, he slid wide on gravel and hit a wall. The Norwegian had to complete 10km with badly damaged steering and he lost almost a minute as a result.