Baking hot conditions and rough, dusty tracks are testing the world's top rally crews on the seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Acropolis Rally, which started in earnest today after a ceremonial start last night in Athens.
As in Cyprus a fortnight ago, crews running further down the order have benefited from slightly cleaner roads and charged to the top of the leaderboard as a result. Subaru's two young guns, Petter Solberg and Markko Martin, spent much of the day locked in a battle for the lead with the Fords of Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae, and Subaru's Richard Burns in pursuit.
On the last stage of the leg, both Solberg and Martin were slowed by mechanical problems, and dropped respectively to fifth and fourth place leaving the lead to Ford's Colin McRae. The Greek stages have inflicted their usual damage on the machinery: Peugeot lost both Marcus Grönholm and Didier Auriol, while Subaru driver Toshihiro Arai also retired early this afternoon. The action has been enjoyed by large crowds of enthusiastic fans but they in turn have posed a problem: the fifth stage today was cancelled due to spectator congestion.
At Subaru Richard Burns has reported no major problems with his Impreza WRC2001 today. Petter Solberg felt that his set-up wasn't perfect due to him not having run with two spare wheels before and run part of stage 6 locked in sixth gear, while Markko Martin's Impreza suffered from minor clutch problems during this morning's opening pair of stages and from a stiff steering on the last stage. Toshihiro Arai, meanwhile, retired with an engine fire on today's fourth stage. He'd earlier struggled with heavy power steering.
Petter Solberg and Markko Martin charged to the front of the field this morning, with the young Norwegian grabbing the initiative to eke out a small advantage. Martin set his first fastest time at WRC level on SS4 to stay in touch, however, and the pair were separated by less than six seconds entering this afternoon's final two stages. Richard Burns has concentrated on not making mistakes or damaging his car today, and the Englishman has been satisfied with his pace, given his relatively high position in the running order. Toshihiro Arai settled into a top ten position early this morning, but he was forced to retire when his car caught fire in SS4.
Richard Burns said: ''I'm just concentrating and keeping an eye on what everyone else is doing. The stages are smoother this year than last, but there are still rough places and rocks that have the potential to catch you out.''
Petter Solberg added: ''I've been talking to the team a lot about what we might do with road position. For sure the roads are cleaning a bit for us but equally, there are a lot of big rocks being pulled out. In SS3 I virtually stopped on a couple of occasions just to drive around the worst stones. If you take a risk and drive over them you could end up retiring like Marcus (Grönholm).''
Meanwhile at Ford the Focus RS WRC01s of Colin McRae and Francois Delecour have been generally reliable today, although McRae damaged his front dampers on a particularly nasty gulley near the end of SS4. Carlos Sainz lost his rear brakes slightly towards the end of the same stage and stopped before stage 6 to fix some electrical problem, without losing any time.
Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz have overcome their high running position to post top ten times all day, with McRae even posting a fastest time in SS4 and SS6. Ford has used mid-stage split time noticeboards to keep its drivers informed of progress. The third Focus driver, Francois Delecour has struggled: he injured his right wrist in a mountain bike accident yesterday afternoon and the painkillers he was given this morning left him feeling extremely drowsy. As they wore off he began to feel more pain, and navigator Daniel Grataloup even changed gear during road sections to ease the strain on the Frenchman's hand. Their cause wasn't helped when they suffered a left-rear puncture in today's first stage, and they spent most of the day recovering towards the top ten.