Marcus Gronholm took a giant step towards achieving his dream of victory on Rally Finland, making the most of his rivals' retirements to open out a large gap over those still in pursuit.

The Peugeot driver all but dominated the opening day's action, taking seven stage wins out of a possible ten, but found life a little less easy as day two dawned. An early morning run-out from the overnight halt still provided the Finn with another fastest time, but preceded a less hospitable day in which Juha Kankkunen, Colin McRae and Sebastian Lindholm would all win stages.

Notably missing from the list of stage winners, however, was Gronholm's long-time challenger - and current championship leader - Richard Burns. The Subaru pilot had been the only thorn in Gronholm's side on day one, sharing the stage wins with the Finn, and would more than likely have added to his tally of three had it not been for a sizeable accident on the day's opening test.

Related Articles

To make matters worse for the Englishman, he had already completed the stage by the time he rolled out of it, misjudging a fifth-gear corner immediately after the flying finish. The error not only handed Gronholm an enlarged advantage, but will almost certainly end Burns' reign at the top of the points standings too.

''We had the corner down as a flat right that tightened, and that's exactly what it was,'' the uninjured Subaru driver revealed, ''I was just going too fast to get around it!''

Inheriting second place in Burns' enforced absence was the rally's surprise package Harri Rovanpera. A constant in and around the top three on Friday, the Finnish privateer admitted early on that he had little chance of catching Gronholm unless the Peugeot hit big problems, and said that he would be more than happy just to stay in second place.

Rovanpera's biggest threat lay with Colin McRae as the cars headed back to the overnight rest halt on day two, but the Ford driver had been able to make little impression on those ahead of him, despite taking two stage wins. The Scot, like Rovanpera, has almost given up hope of winning the event and, with Burns already out, is just looking to improve his Finnish finishing record.

''It's better for me to stay on the safe side, and try to ensure I score some points,'' he said, ''If you look at the tyre tracks from Marcus and Harri, you can see that they are still trying very, very hard. I thought it was going to be quite easy to pass Harri, but he's proving too tenacious for me to take any big chances.''

Burns wasn't the only victim of the day's opening stage, with the Mitsubishi and SEAT challenges both being reduced by one. Freddy Loix suffered not one, but two, accidents in the course of Juupajoki's 30km, the second, although only a minor collision with a rock, sufficient to remove the radiator exposed by the first incident and render the Carisma hors de combat.

Tony Gardemeister, expected by many to become the victim of his own over-exuberance, succumbed quietly, as his engine cut following electronics failure after the end of the stage and, agonisingly close to the service at Halli, the Finn's car ground to a halt.

''There was no pressure to the fuel pumps,'' confirmed a crestfallen Gardemeister, ''It was a really stupid problem!''

There was better news for Mitsubishi as Tommi Makinen survived day two and moved into fourth overall, within touching distance of McRae's Ford Focus ahead of him. The reigning champion suffered as a result of poor tyre choices when the roads were at their slipperiest in mid-day rain, but stayed on track to give himself a shot at the podium over tomorrow's final five stages.

Behind Makinen, the second nominated Peugeot point-scorer was well-placed to add to the team's total. Sebastian Lindholm added to cousin Gronholm's stage win tally by taking fastest time on SS12, before overcoming turbo problems on SS15 to keep himself in contention for a top six on his return to works action.

Ironically, the final points-paying place as the cars returned from the Killeri sprint lay with the man Peugeot had passed over as its second nominated driver, Francois Delecour. The Frenchman performed steadily all day to move up the order as those ahead of him succumbed, and now has almost a minute in hand over countryman Didier Auriol in seventh. The SEAT driver reported that his E3 Cordoba was now handling as he had expected it to yesterday.

Completing the top ten, Pasi Hagstrom and Alister McRae had relatively little to report, unlike tenth-placed Juha Kankkunen, who experienced the highs and lows of rallying in the space of two stages. The second Subaru driver won two tests to claw back valuable seconds on the leader, but then suffered a puncture on the next stage, which eventually damaged the wheel sufficiently to cost him several minutes.

Kankkunen's passage back to the points was eased by the late retirements of Tapio Laukkanen and Janne Tuohino, who both failed to emerge from SS17. Laukkanen, in a fourth Ford Focus for the event, lost oil pressure as he approached the end of the stage, while Tuohino crashed out while running inside the top twelve.

Markko Martin and Carlos Sainz also benefited from the two retirements, with the Spaniard almost making it back into the top ten after yesterday's dramas. Despite being re-seeded to run eleventh on the road, Sainz actually began the day down in 30th and made matters worse by rolling the Focus on the day's opening stage. From then on, however, he made steady progress with the battered car to climb back to 13th overnight.

Martin went off on SS12 as the result of his second puncture in three stages, and lost four minutes to the leaders. The young Estonian knuckled down after that, however, and was on the verge of breaking back into the top ten as the field headed back to Jyvaskyla overnight.

The Group N battle had much the same sort of appearance as its more powerful sibling, with Jani Paasonen holding a comfortable 49secs lead over team-mate Juuso Pykalisto. Pykalisto has done more of the stage winning in the class, but suffered badly after a problem on Friday, and had spent much of day two narrowing the gap to the leader. In his wake, Manfred Stohl and Gianluigi Galli battled for third after Jouko Pouhakka retired, before the Italian made a mistake right at the end of the day, and allowed both his Austrian rival and local driver Juha Hellman through.

There were no such mistakes from Marcus Gronholm, however, and the Finn ended the day with three straight stage wins to consolidate his advantage at the top of the times. With third-placed McRae now over a minute adrift, and Burns out of the event altogether, the leader could be forgiven for thinking that the rally is his, but is too experienced to make that sort of error as well.

''It's a shame that Richard crashed, because I was enjoying the battle between us,'' he explained, ''but it is important now to keep my rhythm, and concentrate on reaching the finish tomorrow.''

Five stages lie between Gronholm and the event he said meant most to him. An early start and almost 530km to cover will ensure that the Peugeot driver is awake.

Stage winners - leg two. SS11 Juupajoki (30.34km)Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 15mins 13.8secs SS12 Vastila (17.43km) Sebastian Lindholm Peugeot 206 WRC 08mins 21.7secs SS13 Paijala (12.81km) Juha Kankkunen Subaru Impreza WRC 06mins 07.0secs SS14 Ehikki 1 (19.08km) Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC 09mins 30.2secs SS15 Leustun 1 (23.58km) Juha Kankkunen Subaru Impreza WRC 11mins 47.1secs SS16 Ouninpohja (34.21km) Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 16mins 29.1secs SS17 Vaheri 1 (25.43km) Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 12mins 25.2secs SS18 Killeri 1 (2.23km) Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 01mins 08.7secs

Overall times after SS18

1. Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 2hrs 24mins 33.0secs +00mins 00.0secs
2. Harri Rovanpera Toyota Corolla WRC 2hrs 25mins 29.2secs +00mins 56.2secs
3. Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC 2hrs 25mins 46.1secs +01mins 13.1secs
4. Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6 2hrs 25mins 58.8secs +01mins 25.8secs
5 Sebastian Lindholm Peugeot 206 WRC 2hrs 26mins 09.3secs +01mins 36.3secs
6. Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC 2hrs 27mins 22.3secs +02mins 49.3secs
7. Didier Auriol SEAT Cordoba WRC 2hrs 28mins 19.8secs +03mins 46.8secs
8. Pasi Hagstrom Toyota Corolla WRC 2hrs 28mins 34.3secs +04mins 01.3secs
9. Alister McRae Hyundai Accent WRC 2hrs 29mins 12.1secs +04mins 39.1secs
10 Juha Kankkunen Subaru Impreza WRC 2hrs 30mins 15.0secs +05mins 42.0secs

11. Marko Martin Toyota Corolla WRC 2hrs 30mins 45.1secs +06mins 12.1secs
13. Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 2hrs 32mins 35.6secs +08mins 02.6secs
15. Kenneth Eriksson Hyundai Accent WRC 2hrs 33mins 26.5secs +08mins 53.5secs

Group N

17. Jani Paasonen Mitsubishi Carisma GT 2hrs 34mins 24.3secs +09mins 51.3secs
19. Juuso Pykalisto Mitsubishi Carisma GT 2hrs 35mins 13.9secs +10mins 40.9secs
20. Manfred Stohl Mitsubishi Carisma GT 2hrs 34mins 49.2secs +11mins 24.9secs
21. Juha Hellman Mitsubishi Carisma GT 2hrs 37mins 38.8secs +13mins 05.8secs
22. Gianluigi Galli Mitsubishi Carisma GT 2hrs 37mins 50.5secs +13mins 17.5secs

Retirements

Rtd Tapio Laukkanen Ford Focus WRC oil pressure - SS17
Rtd Janne Tuohino Toyota Corolla WRC accident - SS17
Rtd Juoko Puhakka Mitsubishi Carisma GT track rod - SS12
Rtd Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 accident - SS11
Rtd Toni Gardemeister SEAT Cordoba WRC electrics - SS11
Rtd Freddy Loix Mitsubishi Carisma GT accident damage - SS11
Rtd Petter Solberg Ford Focus WRC accident - SS8

[Times courtesy Mitsubishi Motors]