Four of rallying's top stars are fighting for victory on the sixth round of this year's World Rally Championship, the Cyprus Rally, which continued today.
Richard Burns, Colin McRae, Marcus Grönholm and Carlos Sainz remain in contention on the Mediterranean island event after today's eight stages (a loop of four repeated). The latter driver has set several fastest times to recover after he struggled with his high road position yesterday, and the Spaniard still has an outside shot of victory. Less than half a minute separates the top crews and with McRae and Burns virtually tied at the head of the field, Ford used team personnel in today's final stage to keep its driver informed. As a result, he'll start tomorrow's final leg just three seconds behind Burns, but guaranteed a slightly cleaner run.
The intense heat and rocky tracks have again placed reliability at a premium, and several of the top crews have hit problems. Retirements included Kenneth Eriksson's Hyundai, the Peugeot of Didier Auriol and Ford's François Delecour.
At Subaru Richard Burns's Subaru Impreza has been basically reliable today. Its ride height has been raised, so the Englishman has suffered fewer instances of the dust entering the cockpit that hampered his progress yesterday. He did suffer from a front damper problem in the day's last stage, however. Team-mate Toshihiro Arai's car continues to overheat occasionally - on this morning's second stage, it lapsed back into 'safe mapping mode' when the computer decided the temperature was simply too high.
Richard Burns needed just one stage this morning to move clear of Marcus Grönholm and grab the lead of the rally, and the Briton resisted intense pressure from the pursuing Colin McRae to maintain his advantage until the early afternoon. Team tactics from Ford meant that McRae judged his pace in the last stage, so even though Burns lost time with a front damper problem, he still ended the day in the lead. Toshihiro Arai, meanwhile, benefited from the problems that hit Freddy Loix, Kenneth Eriksson, Didier Auriol to move into the top six. He eased into fifth when François Delecour retired.
Richard Burns said: ''This evening's result was basically engineered by Ford, so it wasn't really a clean fight. We know that the first car on the road has less grip than the others because of the loose gravel, so I'm aware tomorrow's going to be a hard fight. Any one of the top four could probably still win here - I think Carlos could still be a big threat.''
Toshihiro Arai added: ''It's very difficult and worrying when the engine overheats. When the safety mode cuts in the car slows down to walking speed, which is very frustrating. But my aim here is to finish because I think that could get me a point now. I'll be concentrating on not making a mistake now.''
Over at Ford the Focus WRC01s of Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz have suffered no major mechanical problems today. McRae felt the suspension on his example was slightly too soft for this morning's stages, but he stiffened the springs at lunchtime service to prevent it from grounding out on the rough roads. François Delecour enjoyed a largely troublefree run until the day's fifth stage, when his engine lost power and stopped completely close to the finish. The Frenchman was forced to retire as a result.
McRae believed that his overnight fourth place was a perfect point from which to start a charge, and he duly eased clear of both François Delecour and Marcus Grönholm during this morning's loop of four stages to occupy second overall. Delecour wasn't exactly slow, however - the Frenchman moved ahead of Grönholm and posted several top three times as he continued to hold his podium placing. An engine problem forced him to retire late this afternoon, though. Carlos Sainz, meanwhile, recovered strongly as he made full use of his relatively low road position and the improved grip that went with it. The Spaniard set six fastest times today to move ahead of Freddy Loix and once Delecour retired, he was promoted to fourth. He ended the day less than half a minute off the lead.