Peugeot driver Gilles Panizzi holds a relatively comfortable lead on the 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Sanremo Rally, which continued in northern Italy today.
The Frenchman inherited the top position when overnight leader Jesus Puras crashed his Citroen
Xsara on today's second special stage, and he then built a lead of more than 40 seconds. The second Xsara of Philippe Bugalski also crashed and then retired with fuel pump problems shortly after Puras but the third car, driven by FIA Super 1600 Cup leader Sebastien Loeb, has moved into second place ahead of Peugeot's Didier Auriol.
Championship challengers Colin McRae and Tommi Mäkinen have endured another long day, however. Both have been marginally happier with their cars after yesterday's problems were slowly solved, but it now seems unlikely that either will add to their points tally in the drivers' series.
At Peugeot Didier Auriol's 206 WRC has been reliable today, but the cars of Gilles Panizzi and Marcus Grönholm have been hit by occasional gearbox glitches. Panizzi lost the downshift on his steering wheel 'paddle' on today's fifth stage and had to resort to the manual stick, while Grönholm's 'box started to upshift of its own accord in the same stage. The Finn also had to cope with bent suspension after he clouted a wall in SS7b.
Gilles Panizzi lost a few seconds to overnight leader Jesus Puras on today's first stage but in the second, it became academic when the Spaniard crashed out. When Philippe Bugalski retired as well, Panizzi was handed a comfortable cushion and he matched his rivals' pace thereafter. The retirements of the Citroens promoted Didier Auriol to third, then second as he swapped seconds - and places - with Sebastien Loeb. The 1994 world champion eventually had to settle for third overnight.
Marcus Grönholm lost time when he smashed his car off a wall on today's second stage, but the reigning world champion quickly recovered and moved back past Carlos Sainz into fourth.
Gilles Panizzi said: ''It definitely got easier when Philippe and Jesus retired, but I still have to keep my concentration. Running first on the stages can sometimes be difficult because I find the patches of loose gravel on the outside of corners. There's no doubt that the car is working very well, although I think perhaps the Citroen
is a little easier on its tyres so it's better in the long stages. Tomorrow's a short day but lots could still happen, so I have to concentrate.''
Didier Auriol noted: ''I've been pushing hard and attacking, of course, but I haven't been taking stupid risks because in the end, Sebastien isn't registered for manufacturers' points. It's turning into a good fight, though!”
Meanwhile over at Citroen
Philippe Bugalski's Xsara WRC retired on today's third stage when its fuel pump malfunctioned and the engine was left with zero fuel pressure. Jesus Puras's example had to retire with suspension damage on the day's second stage. But Sebastien Loeb's example has been reliable.