Local drivers Marcus Gr?nholm and Harri Rovanper? have become embroiled in a fight for victory on the ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rally Finland, which continued today.

The two Peugeot drivers moved clear of rivals Richard Burns, Colin McRae and Markko Martin on the fast stages to the south-west of host town Jyvaskyla. A stunning fastest time from Rovanper? on the day's longest stage, Ouninpohja, moved him into a position to challenge his world champion team-mate. The pair arrived at this evening's superspecial separated by just under 13 seconds and left it with a gap of 14.

The predicted rain failed to materialise today, punishing the first few cars on the road, as they had to sweep the stages clear of loose gravel. Several of the fancied crews hit trouble, too - Didier Auriol retired his Peugeot with suspension failure, while yesterday's privateer sensation Jani Paasonen crashed twice in his Ford Focus.

At Peugeot Didier Auriol's hopes of a top-six finish on the Rally Finland ended in an unlucky 13th stage for the Frenchman. He felt his 206 WRC handling strangely after about six kilometres and then the right-front suspension collapsed in a left-hand corner following a jump. The other two 206 WRCs of Marcus Gr?nholm and Harri Rovanper? have however been reliable.

Marcus Gr?nholm took over first position on today's opening stage when overnight leader Richard Burns suffered a puncture, and the reigning world champion held top spot thereafter to arrive back in Jyvaskyla this evening 12.7 seconds ahead of his nearest rival.

Harri Rovanper? tried to charge this morning but damaged his suspension slightly on a rock on the day's first test. Following service, the Swedish Rally winner increased his pace again to overhaul Burns and move into second overall.

Marcus Gronholm said: ''There is still a long way to go but it's been a good day. I actually think the competition is much tighter than last year and the roads are a bit drier too, which makes them more slippery. I was worried in the second loop of stages because I think I knocked a wheel a bit out of line after a heavy landing but otherwise the car has been running very well. I want to fight with Harri tomorrow - I haven't had much of a fight for the last nine months, so why not?!''

Harri Rovanpera added: ''I knew I had to charge today after my problems yesterday, but then I hit this rock and started to notice some oil coming from the suspension again. Luckily for me it didn't become as bad as yesterday afternoon, and then on the next three stages I was able to push again. It's going well - I have a good feeling for the car and our speed backs up what we felt after testing.''

Didier Auriol noted: ''I don't understand why the suspension broke. I didn't hit anything, but I did feel the car go a bit strange. Then in a compression after a jump it broke. I'm disappointed - we'd chosen too soft a tyre compound this morning but I knew from yesterday that we could have scored a good result.''

Meanwhile at Subaru Richard Burns and Petter Solberg have had no major problems with their Impreza WRC2001s today, although a puncture shredded on Burns's car towards the end of today's first stage. He also had a right-front puncture towards the end of the day's longest test, Ouninpohja. Markko Martin's car has been troublefree, apart from 19km of SS19 when the Estonian flattened the exhaust by going off.

Richard Burns believes that today's stages didn't clean as much as he'd feared they might, but the Briton felt that not being able to study rivals' lines in the loose gravel cost him more time. He lost crucial seconds this morning with a puncture but was able to almost match Gr?nholm on the following tests, even eclipsing the Finn in SS14. He couldn't defend Harri Rovanper?'s charge, though, and slipped to third as he struggled to push to the limit on stages he hadn't seen before. Markko Martin inched closer to his team-mate this morning, but he slid off backwards at a junction in SS15 and flattened his exhaust. Running with reduced power for 19km was enough to allow Colin McRae past the Estonian and Martin complained of a lack of grunt on the following stages too.

Petter Solberg has struggled to find confidence in his car and pacenotes today, but the young Norwegian stayed close to the points thanks to the retirement of Auriol.

Richard Burns said: ''I haven't lost as much time as I expected today. We've been close to Marcus on almost all the stages - to be honest, not being able to see the best lines has cost me more time than sweeping the road clean of loose gravel. The fight's not over but I've been pushing like hell and when you're on roads that you haven't competed on before you find yourself taking risks.''

Markko Martin noted: ''It was going really well until I had my little off. You can see some of the lines in the road, particularly in the softer, slower corners, and that helps a little. But I wanted to set good times on this rally and that's what we've been doing, so I'm happy.''

Petter Solberg continued: ''This rally is all about experience and I'm still finding place in my pacenotes where I'm not totally happy. That spoils your confidence for the really fast bits and it's the last few percent where you really lose the time. A lot of today's stages were new or relatively new to me and they've been hard.''

At Ford the three Focus RS WRC01s of Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Francois Delecour have been generally reliable today.

Colin McRae started today's stages running sixth on the road and the Scot reckoned that swept-clean surfaces helped him to charge. He needed just two stages to inch past Didier Auriol and by the afternoon's second service, the 1995 world champion had moved clear of Markko Martin as well. He arrived back in Jyvaskyla in fourth and ready to challenge Burns for third tomorrow.

Carlos Sainz felt his Focus was too soft on today's first pair of tests but the Spaniard was satisfied with a stiffer set-up later. He moved ahead of Petter Solberg on today's third test, then into the points when Didier Auriol hit trouble. Third Focus driver Fran?ois Delecour has posted several fast times, including a second-fastest in SS11, but the Frenchman felt very aggrieved at having to cope with slower driver Jouni Ahvenlammi's dust during this afternoon's stages.

Colin McRae said: ''I don't think position on the road will make such a big difference tomorrow. We've been pushing hard today and apart from SS15, when my pacenotes weren't working so well, it's been good. I'm fairly confident I can catch Richard but equally, I'm not going to throw away fourth position trying to get an extra championship point.''

Hyundai's Juha Kankkunen's hopes of keeping his Accent WRC2 in the top ten were dealt a hammer blow on the way to this morning's first stage, when the four-times world champion discovered that his car was down on turbo boost. He had to contest three stages with the problem. The Finn encountered brake problems in SS16 and he was forced to retire.

Alister McRae's and Kenneth Eriksson's cars have been troublefree, though. Alister McRae benefited from the retirements of Didier Auriol and Jani Paasonen - and team-mate Juha Kankkunen's turbo problems - to move into the top ten. The Scot posted respectable times throughout today's tests, though, and he overhauled Freddy Loix on the morning's opening stage. Juha Kankkunen dropped out of contention this morning when he suffered a complete loss of turbo boost for the day's first three stages. The four-time world champion then had to retire with a brake problem in Ouninhpohja (SS16). Kenneth Eriksson has been trying to regain confidence in his car, after some scary moment caused yesterday by handling and braking problems.

Alister McRae said: ''It's going fine but sometimes in the really sandy stages it saps the power and I find myself changing down gears in fast corners. Otherwise the car's been as good as gold - long may it continue!''

At Mitsubishi Freddy Loix suspected that his Lancer suffered a braking and centre differential glitch this afternoon, and he spun as a result. He also reckoned his car was too softly sprung for the day's opening pair of tests. Toni Gardemeister, meanwhile, has been satisfied with his car's handling today after a complete transmission change last night.

Freddy Loix's concerns about soft suspension resulted in him dropping time to Alister McRae this morning, The Belgian was also passed by privateers Pasi Hagstrom and Juuso Pykalisto and he had to fight hard to stay in contention for a top-ten finish. Toni Gardemeister, meanwhile, moved up the leaderboard but the Finn's time loss yesterday meant he could only inch towards the top ten.

Freddy Loix said: ''I'm still learning on every stage on this rally - about set-up, the lines, the braking, everything. It's such a specialised event.''

All of the Skoda Octavia WRC drivers complained of their brakes losing their bite after about 15km of hard use today, but Armin Schwarz, Bruno Thiry and Stig Blomqvist had no major problems otherwise.

On such a power-hungry event, the Skoda drivers have struggled to stay in the top 20 against privateer World Rally Car opposition and although Armin Schwarz fared best, the German held 19th as the crews travelled back to Jyvaskyla this evening. Bruno Thiry occupied 21st as stand-in navigator Georges Biar continued to acclimatise to his first gravel event in six years

Bruno Thiry said: ''Georges is doing a great job and he's actually learning a lot of things that will help him when he goes back to preparing my gravel notes for me. He's learning more about what I actually want and need to know!''

Of the other teams Finnish privateer Jani Paasonen's promising run ended this morning when he rolled on the first left-hand corner of the day's opening stage. He continued, only to slide off in SS15 and hit a tree stump. Juuso Pykalisto has brought his Corolla WRC into the top ten, while Pasi Hagstrom continues to post respectable times in his similar machine.

In the FIA Super 1600 Cup, overnight leader Sebastien Loeb lost a minute after a disagreement with a marshal, handing the lead to Francois Duval. But soft front shock absorbers cost the Belgian crucial seconds, allowing the recovering Loeb to reclaim the category lead. Early challenger Andrea Dallavilla lost time with a broken driveshaft on his Fiat Punto.
In the Group N class for more standard cars, leader Jouko Puhakka lost time when he had to stop and change a puncture, allowing Jouni Ampuja and Marko Ipatti to fight for the category lead.

Rally Statistics:

Starters: 125 cars (58 Group A + 67 Group N) restarted the rally

Retirements: Auriol (F), Kankkunen (FIN), Paasonen (FIN) + 20 other drivers

Today - Saturday 25 August:
Leg 2 started from Jyvaskyla at 06h00 and covers 703.14km, including 180.55km on 9 special stages.

Tomorrow - Sunday 25 August:
Leg 3 starts from Jyvaskyla at 07h00 and covers 483.27km, including 96.34km on three special stages. The first car is expected at the final control in Jyvaskyla at 16h54.

Weather forecast:
Overcast with a good chance of persistent rain

Stage by stage summary - Leg two:

SS10 Takvialinen 1 (30.30kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 15m 06.2
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 15m 09.6
3. McRae (GB) Ford 15m 10.1

Leaders after SS10:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 21m 21.8
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 21m 33.7
3. Martin (EE) Subaru 1h 21m 43.9

SS11 Vastila (17.40kms):
1. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 8m 22.4
2. Delecour (F) Ford 8m 23.1
3. Martin (EE) Subaru 8m 23.6

Leaders after SS11:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 29m 45.5
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 30m 00.3
3. Martin (EE) Subaru 1h 30m 07.5

SS12 Paijala (12.81kms):
1. Sainz (E) Ford 6m 01.9
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 6m 02.1
3. Lindholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 02.2

Leaders after SS12:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 35m 47.9
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 36m 04.2
3. Martin (EE) Subaru 1h 36m 10.7

SS13 Ehikki (19.07kms):
1. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 9m 18.5
2. McRae (GB) Ford 9m 20.7
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 25.3

Leaders after SS13:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 45m 13.2
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 45m 31.4
3. Martin (EE) Subaru 1h 45m 38.6

SS14 Parkkola (15.80kms):
1. McRae (GB) Ford 8m 03.8
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 8m 04.2
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 8m 05.7

Leaders after SS14:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 53m 20.3
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 53m 37.1
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 1h 53m 44.0

SS15 Leustu (23.58kms):
1. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 11m 38.3
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 11m 43.5
3. McRae (GB) Ford 11m 44.4

Leaders after SS15:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 05m 03.8
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 2h 05m 22.3
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 2h 05m 23.8

SS16 Ouninpohja 1 (34.11kms):
1. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 16m 29.9
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 16m 38.2
3. McRae (GB) Ford 16m 41.9

Leaders after SS16:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 21m 42.0
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 2h 21m 52.2
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 2h 22m 13.1

SS17 Vaheri (25.42kms):
1. McRae (GB) Ford 12m 20.6
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 12m 21.7
3. Sainz (E) Ford 12m 23.0

SS18 Killeri 2 (25.42kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1m 20.3
2. P.Solberg (N) Subaru 1m 21.0
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 1m 21.2

Leaders after SS18:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 35m 24.0
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot +14.2
3. Burns (GB) Subaru +38.3
4. C.McRae (GB) Ford +42.0
5. Martin (EE) Subaru +1m 07.3
6. Sainz (E) Ford +1m 27.4
7. Lindholm (FIN) Peugeot +2m 23.9
8. Solberg (N) Subaru +2m 26.7
9. Pykalisto (FIN) Toyota +3m 30.5
10. A.McRae (GB) Hyundai +3m 36.4