After a drama-filled first couple of stages this morning, championship protagonists Petter Solberg
and Sebastien Loeb
settled down at the head of the field at the end of today's six stages.
The third driver in with a shot at this year's FIA World Rally Championship drivers' crown - Carlos Sainz retired on the Trawscoed test this morning. The Spaniard slid off the road and was unable to extricate his Xsara WRC, ending his dream of a third world title.
Solberg led the event after the super special stage in Cardiff last night, however Loeb move to the top of the standings following the first two forest tests this morning. Fastest times on stages four and five were enough to power Solberg back to the front of the pack though and at the end of the second run through the Cardiff Super Special he held an 8 second advantage over Loeb.
Championship aside, there were problems aplenty for the leading crews on this sunny opening leg. Outgoing world champion Marcus Gronholm retired after SS3, having damaged the steering on his 206 when he clipped a log in a fast left-hand corner. Ford's Markko Martin was also hobbled in the third stage, the Estonian made it back to service with a seriously sick engine in his Focus. The problem could not be fixed and another potential winner retired five kilometres out of the service on the way to SS4.
Solberg's team-mate Tommi Makinen settled into third place, albeit some distance behind the leaders, but with Colin McRae hard on his heels in fourth place.
Neither Subaru Impreza WRC2003 has suffered any problems today.
Solberg ended what was, for him, an undramatic leg in the lead of the rally, having moved ahead of Loeb after the first run at Rheola test. The Subaru driver admitted he was driving with some pace in reserve and not taking too many risks. A front-right puncture five kilometres before the end of the fifth and final forest stage of the day allowed Loeb to pull 2.4s back.
"It's too early in the rally to be pushing to the limit," said Solberg, "I'm happy right now, of course. I know that there are some stories that Loeb has been told to make it to the finish for the manufacturers' title – I don't care what anybody says, he's here to win – just like I am. I didn't hit anything to get the puncture in SS6. The tyre just went straight down – at the split before we were leading, it's a shame to drop that time – but this position is good for us."
Makinen caught his ailing countryman Marcus Gronholm in the third stage of the day – dropping a few seconds before he made it past the Peugeot. Through fourth and fifth stages, Makinen felt the rear suspension on his Subaru was too soft for the drying stages. He ended the day third.
"It was quite difficult on the second loop of stages, the car was sliding quite a lot," said the Finn, "The third and fourth stages were nice, quite a bit drier than the first two. The suspension setting has been the only trouble we have had today, it's been good."