Mitsubishi and Ford, two of only three Manufacturer teams to have both cars running at the end of the second leg of the Monte Carlo Rally, look set to battle it out for victory on Sunday with Colin McRae and Tommi Makinen separated by just three seconds.

Thankfully the second day of the 2001 Rally of Monte Carlo did not see the level of mechanical carnage witnessed over the opening six stages on Friday and although Subaru decided not to further risk the engine of Richard Burns' new Impreza after problems en-route to the overnight halt yesterday evening.

"As we came into Monte Carlo," explained the dejected Englishman, "the car dropped onto three cylinders. We realised we wouldn't get out of Monte Carlo again so we decided to save the engine. I've no idea what caused it."

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Burns' retirement left just 34 starters from an original entry of 65 and there were more than a few onlookers who, when surveying the sparsely populated parc-ferme in Monaco's Quai Albert, thought back to the FIA's decision to slash the number of available starting spot on each WRC again. To put things into perspective, if Day Two saw half as many retirements as Day One then just 19 cars would start leg three on Sunday. Scary isn't it.

Saturday's first test was a 24-kilometre test at Turriers and it was Tommi Makinen who continued to shine by posting the fastest time, eight seconds ahead of overall leader Colin McRae who saw his overnight lead shrink to just 22 seconds while Skoda's Armin Schwarz also continued to bundle the Octavia WRC around the icy roads with great aplomb and finished the stage just four seconds behind the Scottish Ford Focus driver.

Makinen continued his charge into SS8 at Sisteron and used the 36 kilometres that comprised the test to slash a full 19 seconds out of McRae's lead, the Scotsman taking it too easy over the dry, but deceptively slippery, asphalt. "I think we were on the right tyres," explained a slightly bemused McRae. "I was a bit surprised when I saw how much time he took from me, especially in Sisteron. I couldn't have matched his time."

McRae's problems would continue into SS9 at Lambruisse although this time they came in the form of some of the thousands upon thousands of spectators who had come to watch the battle between the two leaders but who found themselves precariously close to the roads. McRae, running first on the road found that many fans weren't aware of his impeding arrival until it was early too late and he was forced to back off at several points over the short 15-kilometre test.

It seemed as though McRae was acting as the first warning for the fans, who by and large stayed out of the way of the remaining cars through the stage although several drivers, notably Schwarz, complained of spectators throwing snow and ice at the cars as they passed.

As a result of the delays, which Ford boss Malcolm Wilson was eager to see in case Ford had a case for making the stage times null and void, Makinen swept into the rally lead by a five second margin despite finishing the stage in second place behind the third Focus of Francois Delecour, whose up and down rally continued as he lost both gear shifting assistance and, for a brief moment, his throttle. The Frenchman soldiered on in a state of near exhaustion and was just holding down fourth spot over Schwarz with two stages remaining on the day.

At least that is what everyone thought for it was only as the cars were lined up at the start of SS10 were they informed that due to the massive amount of spectators on the Comps Castellane stage, the cars would drive through the stage at normal road speeds and their times would not be recorded. As if to add insult to injury, many cars were pelted with snow as they cruised through. Well you are an easier target at 30mph than at 80mph!

The already compacted route was thus compacted even more with just one more stage left to run, a second run through Sisteron where Makinen had been so dominant earlier in the day.

However it was the fired up McRae who rose to the challenge and the Scot, still smarting over his SS9 experience simply flew as he outpaced his team-mate Carlos Sainz by more than six seconds and Makinen by more than eight, allowing him to regain the rally lead heading into the final day. Not that McRae will be too confident at this point for his lead is only three and a half seconds over the Mitsubishi, whose age is disguised by the slow conditions.

Not leading at the end of day two is something of a disappointment for Makinen although he will be greatly pleased with his performance today, as his 2001 season started much differently to how his 2000 season ended with spin after spin in the soaking Welsh forests last November.

"It's been going well," said the 4 time Champion. "I actually thought our tyres were too soft for the Sisteron (SS8) stage but the time was good anyway. I'm enjoying the fight with Colin but there is still a long way to go."

Nearly a minute behind the two leaders was Sainz in the second Focus and the Spaniard had a quiet day, staying out of trouble and posting consistently fast times although he has nothing to race for on Sunday barring a serious problem for either himself or those ahead. The Spaniard struggled with tyres on some stages and was especially careful not to get caught out on the numerous patches of ice that still lined the roads.

Next to the battle for the lead, the dice for fourth overall between Delecour and Schwarz was the highlight of the day as the former continued to struggle with problem after problem while going very quickly in between as the latter relentlessly plugged away, often going much fastest than a car the size of the Octavia should in the conditions.

"When there's snow and ice you can't make full use of your torque or power," explained the German who is battling to secure Skoda's equal best finish in WRC competition. "In those conditions, when we're on the right tyres it is possible to be competitive. But today's roads are dry in a lot of places and we lose out."

Delecour went ahead on SS8 and the two continued to be separated by little more than a handful of seconds until the final stage of the day when Schwarz outpaced the Frenchman by an impressive eleven seconds to snatch fourth back overnight. Both are more than two minutes adrift of the leader and two minutes ahead of sixth place man Alister McRae, who despite being on his first Monte and being very unfamiliar with the conditions, did a sterling job in the improving Accent WRC despite being comfortably off the ultimate pace.

"You could walk up some of the roads more quickly that we've been driving them and at the time, you can't help but think you're losing loads of time to your rivals," explained the Scotsman. "But patience is really the only policy. I guess that's what I'm learning about Monte."

Toni Gardemeister continued along in the Grifone run Peugeot, which has now outlasted all other 206's by a full seven stages, and was holding down seventh overall while the oft-maligned Freddy Loix dropped from a points scoring position down to eighth in the second Mitsubishi after incurring several costly road penalties, one for a broken wishbone.

Day one hero Olivier Burri found the pace a little too hot on day two and fell to ninth overall, commenting that he would have preferred to ride his bicycle along several stages such was his difficulty in finding traction in his Toyota Corolla. Completing the top ten was the impressive Bruno Thiry, who continued to recover well from his day one difficulties albeit slightly off the pace of his team-mate. What is significant is that Ford and Mitsubishi aside, Skoda are the only factory team to have both cars still running, a sign of the work that the Czech team have done over the winter.

In Group N, overnight leader Manfred Stohl encountered turbo problems on the day's second stage and lost four minutes, dropping to sixth in class at one point. That left the door open for Olivier Gillet and Gianluigi Galli to take centre stage in their Mitsubishi's and the pair finished the day eleventh and twelfth overall, one minute apart.

Problems solved for Stohl, the Austrian set about regaining his class lead and although he was back up to third by the day's end he was still two and a half minutes down on Gillet.

Tomorrow's final day comprises just four special stages totalling just under 100-kilmetre competitive stage miles. Can Makinen find four seconds over that distance or will McRae stay ahead and fire the first title warning of the 2001 WRC season? And don't forget the Skoda for if any of the top three hit trouble, Armin Schwarz will be there to capitalise.