Peugeot driver Gilles Panizzi has won the 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Sanremo Rally in northern Italy. The Frenchman, navigated by his brother Herve, finished more than ten seconds clear of Citroen's Sebastien Loeb after three days of intense competition in the mountains above the Mediterranean coast.
Today's four stages were held in mixed conditions, with some drivers rating the final pair of tests - run in thick mist with standing water and soaking leaves on the road - as the hardest they'd faced all season. But although Panizzi allowed Loeb to eat into his 40-second overnight advantage, he matched his young rival's pace in the last stage to secure his third WRC rally win.
Panizzi's team-mate Didier Auriol claimed third on an all-French podium and since Citroen is not eligible for manufacturers points, Peugeot scored a maximum 16 points from the event to move into third in the makes' series. There was less movement in the drivers rankings, however, since title hopefuls Colin McRae and Tommi Mäkinen both failed to score points. The only real beneficiary was Carlos Sainz, whose drive to fourth overall inched him past Richard Burns and into third place in the title race.
The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Gilles Panizzi and Didier Auriol have been reliable today. Marcus Grönholm was not so fortunate, however - the reigning world champion's car lost its power steering 10km into the opening stage, and he lost around two minutes as a result.
Gilles Panizzi kept his concentration and didn't allow a rapidly-closing Sebastien Loeb to force him into a mistake during today's four stages. Overnight leader Panizzi admitted that he was perhaps too cautious in the penultimate stage, where Loeb scythed more than 20 seconds out of his advantage, but he increased his pace again for the last test and won the event by more than 10 seconds. With Loeb not registered for manufacturers' points, Didier Auriol had little to gain from chasing after the Citroen driver, so the 1994 world champion backed off to secure third overall and a maximum points haul for his team. Marcus Grönholm's hopes of even keeping Auriol in his sights this morning were destroyed when his 206 WRC's power steering failed on the first test of the day and he lost two minutes. The world champion recovered in the last pair of stages but he couldn't catch François Delecour and had to settle for seventh.
Gilles Panizzi said: ''It was really difficult today because the roads were in a very slippery condition and of course, I knew Sebastien would be closing on me. I was a bit too cautious in the stage before last but running first on the road wasn't easy. I was finding all of the slippery bits underneath the trees and on the leaves, and it would have been easy to slide off the road. I'm delighted with the result - it's good for me to win again and Didier's finish means it's a fantastic day for Peugeot. I can't wait for Corsica.''
Didier Auriol noted: ''I've never seen stages like the ones this afternoon. I don't like fog normally but it was worse than ever - and the road surface was incredible. There were leaves, big puddles of water and even some chestnut shells that made it all very greasy. I'm just glad to get to the finish - it's no secret that this car, with the five-speed gearbox, wasn't exactly how I wanted it but it's been very reliable and it's clear that we're competitive.''
At Citroen the sole remaining Xsara WRC of Sebastien Loeb has been reliable today. Sebastien Loeb maintained his pace during today's four stages, but the Xsara's apparent strength on the longer test (25km) allowed him to eat into leader Gilles Panizzi's advantage. On the penultimate test, the runaway FIA Super 1600 Cup leader scalped more than 20 seconds from his rival to enter the last stage just 11.8 seconds adrift, but when Panizzi responded Loeb settled for second on his first world championship outing in the Xsara WRC. He must return to his 1600cc Saxo for the next event in Corsica, though.
Sebastien Loeb said: ''I wasn't really thinking of victory this morning - I was just trying to keep a good speed and not make any mistakes in the difficult conditions. That's all I've been trying to do all event, especially after Philippe (Bugalski) and Jesus (Puras) retired. It's obviously a fantastic result for me on my first world championship rally with the Xsara, but it's also a good result for everyone in the Super 1600 championship because it shows what can happen. I hope that I get another chance in this car soon so I can get more experience, because that was the most difficult thing for me.''