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.”
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.