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Rain drops keep falling...

Drivers and organisers have had to battle against the weather on today's first full leg of the third round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the TAP Rally of Portugal.

Several weeks of rain had left stages in extremely muddy condition and event chiefs were forced to cancel two repeat runnings of tests in the afternoon. Running order played a crucial part in the performances of the sport's top stars, and the first three cars on the road - Tommi Mäkinen, Harri Rovanperä and Carlos Sainz - held those positions as today's action drew to a close.

The Mitsubishis / Lancer Evolutions of Tommi Mäkinen and Freddy Loix have enjoyed a troublefree day, with neither driver reporting any significant mechanical problem.

Four-times world champion Tommi Mäkinen grabbed the lead of the event in today's third stage, even though he'd knocked his car's steering slightly out of line on a rock. The Finn admits that he's benefiting from his position of first car on the road. Team-mate Freddy Loix has run strongly and the Belgian spent much of the day in points-scoring positions.

Tommi Makinen said: ''We hit the right-front corner off a rock in SS4, got a puncture and bent the steering. Because it was so cold, the mousse system didn't work as well as it usually does so we had quite bad understeer. I was very surprised to be so far ahead of Harri (Rovanperä) and Carlos (Sainz) in that stage, although I can see that being first on the road has given me an advantage.''

Freddy Loix said: ''It's been a difficult day. I've been trying to follow the first few guys' wheeltracks, but if you do that, you end up sliding very wide at the exit of the corners.''

The Peugeots of Marcus Grönholm and Harri Rovanperä have proven reliable today, although Rovanperä experimented with ride height in an attempt to master the rough conditions. Team-mate Didier Auriol, however, lost time when he damaged a toe link in a pothole. The resulting suspension damage severed a water pipe, and Auriol and navigator Denis Giraudet lost 2m 10s of road penalties as they fixed the problem on a road section.

Harri Rovanperä's Swedish Rally win has helped the Finn today, because it guaranteed him a position near the front of the running order. He led briefly this morning before a cautious approach to the day's longest stage, SS4, dropped him behind Tommi Mäkinen. He still third as crews went to this evening's Lousada superspecial. Marcus Grönholm has suffered from a lower starting position, but the World champion should benefit from a better slot tomorrow after he pinned down a top-four placing early in the day. Didier Auriol lost time with suspension and water pipe damage and faces an uphill battle to regain positions tomorrow.

Marcus Gronholm said: ''I can't go any quicker than this. It's certainly a big advantage to be running nearer the front of the field. If you look at the times I'm setting, plus Colin (McRae) and Richard (Burns), then that proves it. At least it looks like I'll be further up the starting order tomorrow but by then, Tommi's going to be too far ahead.''



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