Richard Burns capitalised on Colin McRae's dramatic exit from the Rally of Great Britain to take a commanding 20 second lead into the final day of action in the Welsh forests but title rival Marcus Gronholm is perfectly placed to take his first World Title for Peugeot.
It was still dark when the 126 surviving entrants left Rally HQ in Cardiff on Saturday morning for the first of six special stages, totalling more than 100 competitive stage miles on day two of the Network Q Rally of Great Britain.
Conditions were the same, if not worse than they had been on Friday and it was clear that the Welsh forest roads were going to be very slippery, muddy and treacherous for even the most experienced of campaigners as rain, mist and wind continued to batter the Welsh countryside.
Overnight leader Colin McRae was understandably cautious on the first stage of the day, a 26-kilometre test in the Rhondda valley, and was third behind Richard Burns and 2000 Champion elect Marcus Gronholm. The Scot may have lost little more than three seconds to stage winner Richard Burns and his gap to Gronholm was still a comfortable 18 seconds but the way in which the English Subaru driver manhandled his Impreza along the tight roads gave warning that if the Ford Focus driver wanted to retain his lead he would have to fight for it.
Peugeot 206 WRC pilot Gronholm admitted that he would be taking things easy on the longest day of the rally but even so the Finn was only two seconds off Burns' mark. Gronholm was already looking back to the 40-second cushion that separated him from fourth placed Tommi Makinen in the overall classification, safe in the knowledge that neither the four time World Champion or fifth placed Carlos Sainz in the second Focus were in a position to challenge the top three.
Rhondda sadly saw the demise of Welshman Gwyndaf Evans, whose SEAT Cordoba broke it's clutch mid stage and forced the veteran out of the event before he could reach the start of the tenth stage.
Stage Ten at Rhoela was where Tommi Makinen's day began to go downhill as the Mitsubishi Lancer driver slid wide and clouted a tree, the offending object causing some serious cosmetic damage to the front of the Lancer and costing its driver more than half a minute as he dropped behind Sainz in the battle for fourth place overall.
Some way ahead of the outgoing Champion, McRae was back into a rhythm and took the stage by a tenth of a second over Burns. Yes, one tenth of a second over 31.47kms of narrow, twisty, slippery, muddy roads, not bad. Both were comfortably clear of the rest of the field, headed by Gronholm and team-mate Gilles Panizzi and as Gronholm completed the stage there was an audible sigh of relief from the entire Peugeot team as this was the stage that claimed the Finnish star last year.
Didier Auriol still clung to sixth overall in the fastest of the three remaining SEAT machines although Harri Rovenpera took sixth on SS10 and was threatening Markko Martin for a place in the top ten.