Colin McRae appeared to have lost his chance of winning the Acropolis Rally with three stages left, but team-mate Carlos Sainz dutifully handed the event back to its long-time leader with just yards to run.

The Spaniard had earlier received orders that the overnight 1-2 was to be held to the finish but, in actions reminiscent of McRae's in Spain two years ago, he appeared unwilling to comply. After gradually eroding the 39secs lead that McRae had built up over the opening stages of the day, Sainz promptly reduced the gap by 21, and then raced into the lead on SS17. With his Scottish team-mate then losing more time on the penultimate stage, everything appeared to have moved in Sainz's direction.

Ford maintained that McRae would still be the winner although, with the final 23km about to start, it looked an impossible task without Sainz either doing something drastic on the stage or off it. In the end, he chose the latter, pulling over just yards from the end, and waiting two minutes before resuming, thereby handing McRae a victory his performances deserved.

''I'm obviously very happy with this victory, not just the fact that we have won, but in the way Ford has controlled the event from the very start,'' said the Scot, who posted five fastest stage times on the event, ''The number of retirements shows just how tough this rally has been. The Focus has never missed a beat and I've felt very relaxed all day because I have complete trust in the team.''

''It's a great result for the Ford Martini team, although I'm sad that it was not me taking the victory,'' admitted Sainz, ''I promise you that on the next rally I'll be trying even harder. Everyone in the team has been working so hard to make this result possible but we know that we cannot relax. We must continue with our development work to ensure the improvement continues and ensure that we can reproduce this sort of result again during the rest of the season.''

Such was the Ford pair's advantage over the rest of the field, Sainz's actions had no effect on the rest of the top five. Despite dropping time, he still finished six minutes ahead of the third placed Subaru. This should, by rights, have belonged to Richard Burns but, having suffered turbo trouble on stage 13, the Englishman called it a day on the next, his engine refusing to fire and sending him OTL.

"I think we lost about two and a half minutes in SS13 when the turbo failed, Burns said, ''When the engine stopped Robert [Reid] and I did everything we could to get it going but we just ran out of time. It's obviously disappointing to have lost the opportunity for at least four more points, but with the way the points have actually gone, it just means that the drivers behind have got a bit closer to each other - not to me. So I think I've been quite lucky in that respect.''

Team-mate Juha Kankkunen thus inherited a podium spot, but had to fight off the concerted attentions of privateer Toshihiro Arai to get it. The Subaru privateer looked good value for fourth, but almost lost out as his engine began to play up. It lapsed onto three cylinders on SS14 and, while not being enough to knock him out of the event, caused enough of a delay that time penalties dropped him to fifth behind Armin Schwarz. Such was the Japanese driver's pace, however, that the deficit was regained on the very next stage, and the pressure was back on Kankkunen.

The Finn had his own problems, with his car overheating as a result of problems endured on day two, but soldiered on ensure that Subaru retained its advantage in the manufacturers' championship.

Schwarz secured two vital championship points for himself and Skoda by taking a hard-earned fifth place on the first anniversary of the Octavia's maiden points score. The German had had to battle with a fever, as well as the excessive heat, for the opening two days, and was content just to make it to the finish on the third, but almost didn't make it.

''I went through a water-splash and the engine dropped onto three cylinders,'' he revealed, ''My heart was in my mouth until it cleared!''

With over half of the works contingent falling by the wayside over the 19 stages, the next three place were all filled by privateers. While Arai led the way for the Teams' Cup runners, Abdullah Bakhashab took sixth in his Toyota Corolla, ahead of Subaru runners Jean-Pierre Richelmi and Frederic Dor. The three had enjoyed a close battle almost to the end, with places changing on each stage, and only niggling delays separated them at the end.

Also involved for much of the day, Greek expert John Papadimitriou dropped away with a couple of slow stages, and found himself dropped one place by a recovering Francois Delecour. Serkan Yazici also impressed on occasion, but suffered when a jack failure cost him penalties and dropped him to an eventual 15th.

Delecour also suffered a jack problem, which prevented him from making a routine switch of tyres from front to rear. With no option but to soldier on, the Peugeot driver struggled with a lack of traction, but still managed to secure a top ten finish after a troubled second leg.

''There seemed to be no grip at all,'' Delecour reported, ''so I was surprised when my stage time told me that I was third fastest!''

He should have been joined at the sharper end of the order by Ford's Petter Solberg, the Norwegian having taken fastest time in five of the day's seven stages. Everything was looking good for the youngster as he headed off to the finish at Itea, before a differential failure left him stranded by the roadside.

As a result of Solberg's demise, Group N winner Gabriel Pozzo finished eleventh overall after a largely trouble-free day. The Argentine was never headed having assumed the class lead on day two, but a three way battle for second was only settled in Gustavo Trelles favour on the final stage.

''Everything has gone really well,'' said Pozzo, ''The rally is very tough, just as I expected, but the car has been fantastic, and we have had no problems at all. I am really pleased to take this win, and it makes up for the disappointment of finishing second last month in front of my home crowd.''

Neither Mitsubishi driver was able to take the lead in the class championship, however, as Manfred Stohl's third place was enough to preserve his advantage. Pozzo's win was only good enough to move him into third overall - twelve points behind second placed Trelles and 15 behind Stohl.

''It was maybe possible to beat Pozzo,'' Trelles admitted, ''but you would have had to take some big risks, and it was better to make sure of a finish. It is always good to finish this rally, and it has been really hard this year.''

McRae's victory, his second of the year, moves him into second place in the championship alongside Acropolis retiree Marcus Gronholm. The pair trail Richard Burns by 14 points - which will guarantee the Subaru driver prime spot even if he fails to finish in New Zealand next month - with Sainz and Tommi Makinen a further point adrift.

''This win has come at exactly the right time because it re-opens the championship,'' McRae added, ''We'll go into the second half of the season with confidence.''

Sainz's actions prevented him from taking his first victory for almost two years, but he will be fired up to beat allcomers on in New Zealand. The rally has always been British territory, however, and with Makinen also looking to kick-start his title defence, the scene is set for another bruising encounter.

Stage winners - Acropolis Rally - Leg Three:

SS13 Pavliani 1 Carlos Sainz 20mins 23.2secs SS14 Stromi 1 Petter Solberg 18mins 02.9secs SS15 Paleohori 2 Petter Solberg 7mins 45.9secs SS16 Gravia 2 Carlos Sainz 18mins 28.0secs SS17 Elatos 2 Petter Solberg 8mins 46.5secs SS18 Pavliani 2 Petter Solberg 20mins 16.2secs SS19 Stromi 2 Petter Solberg 18mins 15.0secs

Result - Acropolis Rally.

1. Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC 04hrs 56mins 54.8secs
2. Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 04hrs 57mins 17.9secs +23.1secs
3. Juha Kankkunen Subaru Impreza WRC2000 05hrs 03mins 33.1secs +6mins 38.3secs
4. Toshiro Arai Subaru Impreza 05hrs 04mins 35.6secs +7mins 40.8secs
5. Armin Schwarz Skoda Octavia WRC 05hrs 06mins 05.8secs +9mins 11.0secs
6. Abdullah Bakhashab Toyota Corolla WRC 05hrs 09mins 49.7secs +12mins 54.9secs
7. Jean-Pierre Richelmi Subaru Impreza 05hrs 10mins 28.1secs +13mins 33.3secs
8. Frederic Dor Subaru Impreza 05hrs 10mins 54.6secs +19mins 59.8secs
11. Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC 05hrs 12mins 07.1secs +15mins 12.3secs
10. John Papadimitriou Subaru Impreza 05hrs 13mins 16.4secs +16mins 21.6secs

11. Gabriel Pozzo Mitsubishi Lancer 05hrs 18mins 51.8secs +21mins 57.0secs
12. Gustavo Trelles Mitsubishi Lancer 05hrs 20mins 04.6secs +23mins 09.8secs
13. Manfred Stohl Mitsubishi Lancer 05hrs 20mins 47.7secs +23mins 52.9secs
14. Ramon Ferreyros Mitsubishi Lancer 05hrs 23mins 17.1secs +26mins 22.3secs
15. Serkan Yazici Toyota Corolla WRC 05hrs 26mins 47.3secs +29mins 52.5secs

Group N

11. Gabriel Pozzo Mitsubishi Lancer 05hrs 18mins 51.8secs +00hrs 21mins 57.0secs

[Times and standings courtesy Mitsubishi]