Reigning FIA World Rally Champion Marcus Grönholm has grabbed the lead of the sixth round of this year's series, the Cyprus Rally, which started from the coastal resort of Limassol this morning.
The Peugeot driver made full use of roads swept clear of dust by the earlier crews to inch clear of the Subaru of Richard Burns and Ford's Colin McRae. The title aspirations of the Finn and his pursuing pack were helped when series leader Tommi Mäkinen slid off the road and out of the event on the day's fourth stage.
Sizzling conditions and the abrasive Cyprus roads caused numerous mechanical problems for the sport's top stars, and as the temperature rose in the afternoon tyre wear became an issue on longer stages.
At Peugeot Didier Auriol's 206 WRC has been generally reliable, but the Frenchman remains less than satisfied with the car's handling. Marcus Grönholm's car completed the day's first two tests without problems, but by the end of SS3 his clutch was beginning to encounter glitches and he stalled on the startline of SS4 as a result. Peugeot engineers fixed the problem at the next service in Pafos, although Grönholm became concerned again on today's last stage. The third 206 WRC of Harri Rovanperä retired on this morning's second test, when the Finn hit a rock and broke the car's front suspension.
Marcus Grönholm though despite his clutch worries took the lead on today's (Friday's) second stage and held it through to the overnight halt in Limassol. The Finn's relatively low position on the road helped his cause, since earlier crews swept dust and loose gravel off the top of the road surface, giving him more traction. Didier Auriol, on the other hand, was the third car into today's stages and the 1994 World champion suffered as a result. The other 206 WRC of Harri Rovanperä set a respectable time in SS1 but on the next test, the Swedish Rally winner was forced to retire with suspension problems.
Marcus Grönholm said: ''Now that Tommi (Makinen) has gone there's maybe a bit more opportunity for guys like me to close the points gap on him, but that's not going to change my approach. I'm just trying to keep my own pace. The clutch problem is a bit worrying, especially at uphill hairpins because I'm afraid I might stall. It doesn't help the confidence.''
Over at Subaru Richard Burns's Impreza WRC2001 has been reliable today, but Petter Solberg and Toshihiro Arai both hit problems in their examples. Solberg's power steering failed before the day's second stage and he also struggled with a side window that kept dropping and allowing dust into the cabin. A fire on today's final stage forced the Norwegian to retire. Arai's Impreza overheated during this morning's first pair of stages and on the second, the engine management system dropped into 'safe mode' as a result. Burns's biggest problem was dust being scooped through the air intakes and into the car on acute dips.
Richard Burns though heads the challengers and was instantly on the pace this morning, although team-mate Petter Solberg grabbed his share of the limelight by setting fastest time on the day's first stage. His power steering problems dropped him down the order, but Burns has maintained a solid top-three placing throughout today's tests. He ended the day in second, just over five seconds behind Marcus Grönholm. Toshihiro Arai lost time with overheating but the Japanese driver was still on the fringes of the top ten.
Richard Burns said: ''It seems the Pirelli tyres are slightly better here than the Michelins, so it's going well. Position on the road has undoubtedly played a part today and we're maybe a bit high up the order for tomorrow, but I wasn't about to start playing games at the end. It's still winnable. The dust is a big problem when it comes into the car, though, because I have to back off every time. I tried to still push, but I ended up hitting a couple of banks so it's not possible.''