French manufacturers have dominated the opening day of the 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Sanremo Rally. Peugeot and Citroen drivers scored fastest times on all of the eight stages held today in the mountains north of the Italian coastal resort, with Xsara WRC driver Jesus Puras eventually emerging as the narrow leader.
The three leading contenders for the drivers' title have suffered badly today, though. Richard Burns (winner of the last round in New Zealand) crashed out less than five kilometres into the day's first stage, while Tommi Mäkinen has been hampered by transmission problems on the first appearance of his Mitsubishi Lancer World Rally Car. Colin McRae, meanwhile, suffered from electronic problems that affected his car's handling.
At Citroen meanwhile the three Xsara WRCs, driven by Philippe Bugalski, Jesus Puras and Sebastien Loeb, have been reliable today. Philippe Bugalski though dented his chances of victory - and several panels on his Xsara WRC - when he spun into a big rock on the day's first stage. He found the gearbox jammed between two gears when the car came to rest, and lost valuable time resetting the transmission. He recovered quickly thereafter, though and had moved back into the points by early afternoon.
Team-mate Jesus Puras made no such errors, though, and the Spaniard led for much of the day. A slow time on the day's fifth stage - caused by 'over-cautious' pacenotes - dropped him behind Gilles Panizzi into second, but he fought back to hold a narrow lead overnight. The third Xsara WRC driver Sebastien Loeb has acclimatised quickly on his first world championship outing in the car. The runaway leader of this year's FIA Super 1600 Cup held eighth after the first stage and then moved into the points, despite complaining of excessive oversteer in the first loop of stages.
Jesus Puras said: ''It's been going very well. The car feels good and apart from the stage where I my pacenotes were too cautious, I've been happy with my driving. I had a small vibration in the day's third stage which I suspect was an ATS mousse insert that we'd hit on the previous test, but it wasn't a big deal. I'm enjoying the fight.''
Philippe Bugalski added: ''I'm quite pleased, although obviously the spin on the first stage was annoying. I thought the car was just going to spin but it hit the big rock and that threw it around, so the front spoiler got damaged too. After that I could feel the front of the car going light in the faster sections! In SS3 I tried too hard and lost time going sideways, but in SS4 I was neat and set fastest time. There's still a long way to go, so I'm going to keep pushing.''
At Peugeot the 206 WRCs driven by Gilles Panizzi and Didier Auriol have been reliable as well, but Marcus Grönholm lost time in the day's last two tests when his steering wheel gear paddle refused to downshift.
Gilles Panizzi set fastest time on today's first stage but last year's winner felt that the initial settings on his 206 WRC were taking him too close to his own limits too often. He dropped to second, but then reverted back to a previous set-up at the following service. Thereafter, he pronounced himself happier as he inched ahead of Jesus Puras to reclaim the lead. Team-mate Marcus Grönholm has occasionally eclipsed the French asphalt ace, as the reigning world champion built up further confidence on asphalt. The Finn set top-three times for much of the day to hold third overall, before late gearbox problems dropped him to sixth. The remaining 206 WRC of Didier Auriol occupied fourth, although the 1994 world champion maintained that he would have preferred Peugeot's six-speed gearbox instead of the five-speed unit fitted to his car.
Gilles Panizzi said: ''I'm much happier with the car now. This morning it was quite difficult to drive and I found myself at my limit a lot of the time, especially under braking. Now the setting is much easier for me - perfect, really. It's turning into a good fight between me, Jesus and even Marcus. I'm not surprised at Marcus's times - he's been getting quicker on every asphalt rally he does.''