Carlos Sainz completed a lights-to-flag victory on the Cyprus Rally to tie Juha Kankkunen's career record 23 event wins and re-fire his championship ambitions.

The Spaniard was far enough ahead at the start of the third and final day to all but rule out the sort of team orders that cost him victory in the Acropolis Rally and, although running first on the road again cost him time on every stage, the cushion remained at 30-plus seconds as the cars returned to Limassol.

Sainz admitted to going for broke on the opening test, just to see whether he could control the gap back to team-mate Colin McRae and, having convinced himself that a win was finally possible, settled for monitoring the situation stage-by-stage. Such was his advantage at the mid-day service, however, that Ford team officials took the matter out of his hands, and asked McRae to play second fiddle.

''I pushed hard on the first stage today but, once I saw that I could hold Colin off, I eased back a little,'' he grinned.

The victory will lift a monkey from the Spaniard's back, after he felt that the team orders in Greece were more than a little unfair. Having overdriven in New Zealand and Finland, trying to prove a point, however, Sainz looked a different man in Cyprus.

''He's really changed his character for this event,'' confirmed team boss Malcolm Wilson, ''He's totally focused, has been training hard and is really fit. It's paid off.''

McRae remained true to his word and, despite closing remorselessly on his team-mate with each passing stage, did not get close enough to think about challenging for the event win. A third successive runners-up spot, however, has lifted him into a similar place in the world championship, just two points behind leader Marcus Gronholm, who failed to finish in Cyprus. Sainz lies fourth, but is now just seven points of the lead.

McRae's climb was aided by the fact that British rival Richard Burns had dropped off the rostrum at the end of the second leg, and was sufficiently adrift of third placed Francois Delecour to prevent a quick recovery. The Frenchman, realising that the two Fords were out of reach ahead of him, settled for holding onto a podium place.

''All I was doing today was making sure I could stay ahead of Richard,'' he admitted later.

By the end, thirty seconds separated the pair, but Delecour was always in control despite Burns taking a brace of stage wins on SS22 and SS23.

The Subaru man almost dropped out of the rally as soon as the third leg started, after the Impreza refused to re-fire at the time control. Trouble had been suspected after a misfire held Burns back from attacking the fastest time, but the Prodrive crew managed to kick the motor into life in time after discovering a loose wire in the engine bay.

From then on, Burns kept his attention firmly on not letting the power die, as it was another two stages to the first service halt, and the ploy seemed to work as he took fastest time on both. The problem was not Burns' only concern, however, as the bad luck that has seen him retire from the last three events tried hard to strike again.

''I had to change a tyre before the first stage after I found a nail in it,'' he revealed, ''Then the electrical problem occurred, and it would take anything up to five seconds between me pressing the throttle and anything happening. My cool suit also failed, and I'm quite looking to returning to the [swimming] pool after today!''

With the top four places seemingly settled from the start, the battle for fifth became the most hotly contested among the leaders. Markko Martin started the day in control of two points, but reigning champion Tommi Makinen made no secret of his intentions to take it away from the Estonian.

The Finn was fastest on the day's opening stage to close the gap by ten seconds - in spite of Martin's third on stage - and set the pattern for much of the leg. By midway through, Makinen was up a place, and another fastest time on the repeat SS21 at Vavatsinia enabled him to cement the position for good.

Martin would not have been too worried about dropping to sixth, except for the loss of a point, as seventh-placed Juha Kankkunen was well adrift of the privateer Toyota. The veteran Finn's problems on the opening day had already placed him a couple of minutes down on the points positions and, with a surprising lack of retirements on day three, his recovery drive would prove fruitless.

Makinen and the Mitsubishi team were enjoying the event a little more, however, having appeared to rediscover the Lancer's competitiveness at last.

''We've done nothing special except prepare hard for the event,'' insisted team boss Andrew Cowan, ''We had the fortune to break everything in testing rather than on the rally itself for a change, and it's a long time since I last saw Tommi enjoying himself so much in a rally car.''

Makinen's team-mate Freddy Loix continued to impress with several top five stage times, but was ultimately destined to be disappointed with a lack of points at the end of the event. The Belgian, who has benefited from the lack of prior experience among the leading runners, managed to get to within a minute of Kankkunen by the end, but suffered from losing too much time on Friday.

The top ten was completed by privateer Teams Cup runners Toshihiro Arai and Simon Jean-Joseph, both in Subarus and both recording top ten stage times throughout the day. The Frenchman, who will join the works Subaru outfit for the forthcoming tarmac events, took a 50-second penalty part way through the day, which kept him down in twelfth when his stage times suggested that he should have been promoted, but did enough over the last couple of tests to earn himself a spot on the leaderboard.

Group N went the way of long-time leader Gustavo Trelles, and the Uruguayan benefited further when championship rival Manfred Stohl could only manage fourth in class. The Austrian recorded several fastest stage times towards the end of the day, and holds on to the series lead, but Trelles closed in dramatically in Cyprus. Argentine duo Gabriel Pozzo and Claudio Menzi completed the class podium.

While the GpN championship battle hots up, however, it has yet to reach the intensity of that for the overall crown. Marcus Gronholm had hoped to capitalise on the six-point advantage he established over Burns by winning in Finland, and would have been pleased to see the Subaru driver finish only fourth, but had probably not counted on McRae's stickability.

The Scot is now just two points adrift of the Peugeot, with two asphalt rallies to come next. The surface is not Gronholm's favourite, whereas the Ford has already won in Spain this season. Burns lies an further point back, with Sainz moving ever closer in fourth overall.

This one could run and run....

Stage winners - leg three.

SS18 Vavatsinia (19.11km) Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6 17mins 05.7secs
SS19 Agios Onoufrious (18.10km) Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 16mins 26.11secs
SS20 Lageia (9.62km) Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 8mins 38.6secs
SS21 Vavatsinia II (19.11km) Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6 16mins 58.3secs
SS22 Machaeras (13.19km) Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 11mins 40.0secs
SS23 Lageia II (9.62km) Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 8mins 35.8secs

Overall times after SS23

1. Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 5hr 26mins 04.9secs +00mins 00.0secs
2. Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC 5hr 26mins 42.2secs +00mins 37.3secs
4. Francois Delecour Peugeot 206WRC 5hr 27mins 35.7secs +01mins 30.8secs
3. Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 5hr 28mins 09.0secs +02mins 04.1secs
5. Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6 5hr 29mins 03.1secs +02mins 58.2secs
6. Marko Martin Toyota Corolla WRC 5hr 29mins 50.3secs +03mins 45.4secs
7. Juha Kankkunen Subaru Impreza WRC 5hr 33mins 06.6secs +07mins 01.7secs
8. Freddy Loix Mitsubishi Carisma GT 5hr 34mins 10.6secs +08mins 05.7secs
9. Toshiro Arai Subaru Impreza 5hr 35mins 20.8secs +09mins 15.9secs
10. Simon Jean-Joseph Subaru Impreza WRC 5hr 48mins 21.0secs +22mins 16.1secs

Group N

11. Gustavo Trelles Mitsubishi Carisma GT 5hr 48mins 45.6secs +22mins 40.7secs
12. Gabriel Pozzo Mitsubishi Carisma GT 5hr 50mins 26.0secs +24mins 21.1secs
13. Claudio Menzi Mitsubishi Lancer 5hr 51mins 31.4secs +25mins 26.5secs
15. Manfred Stohl Mitsubishi Carisma GT 5hr 58mins 26.3secs +31mins 21.4secs

Retirements

Rtd. Toni Gardemeister SEAT Cordoba WRC accident - SS14
Rtd Krzysztof Holowycz Subaru Impreza WRC damage - SS9
Rtd Frederic Dor Subaru Impreza WRC damage - SS9
Rtd Didier Auriol SEAT Cordoba WRC wheel bearing - SS7
Rtd Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC electrics - SS6
Rtd. Luis Climent Skoda Octavia WRC engine - SS5
Rtd John Papadimitriou Subaru Impreza unknown - SS3
Rtd Armin Schwarz Skoda Octavia WRC accident - SS2
Rtd Abdullah Bakhashab Toyota Corolla WRC gearbox - SS2

[Times courtesy Mitsubishi Motors]