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Citroen closes in on first XSara WRC win.


Citroen driver Jesus Puras has tightened his grip on the 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Tour de Corse, which continued today.

The Spaniard started today's seven stages with a 10-second cushion over his nearest rival, Gilles Panizzi (Peugeot), but by the time the crews returned to the overnight halt in Ajaccio he'd extended that lead to nearly 24s.

The notoriously fickle Corsican weather caught out many of the world's best rally drivers with occasional rain showers today. Didier Auriol saw his hopes of a push towards the lead dampened when heavy rain started as he sat on the start line of SS7, while his team-mate Marcus Grönholm slid wide two stages later and damaged his Peugeot beyond repair. There was also frustration for title hopeful Colin McRae - having moved inside the top ten he lost more than four minutes on today's closing pair of stages, after he hit a rock and damaged his car's power steering.

Jesus Puras's Citroen Xsara WRC has been reliable today. Fastest time on today's opening, long stage gave Jesus Puras's overnight lead a small boost and although he occasionally lost time to both Gilles Panizzi and Didier Auriol, the Spaniard still posted four further fastest times to increase his advantage to nearly 24s by the end of today's action.

Puras said: ''It has been a difficult day. The occasionally damp conditions are probably the worst of all, because it becomes impossible to work out which corners have grip and which ones don't. My gravel crew wasn't allowed into stages 11 or 12, which meant we had to go carefully because we weren't totally sure of what conditions lay ahead. But apart from that it's been going fine - the car is superb, exactly how I want it to be. I'm totally focused and I'm very confident that we can give the Xsara WRC its first world championship win tomorrow.''

At Peugeot the 206 WRCs of Gilles Panizzi and Didier Auriol have been ok today, although Panizzi suffered a puncture on today's opening stage. Marcus Grönholm felt less confident than his team-mates on worn tyres but his car also ran without trouble until he hit a wall in SS8 and lost a wheel. Although he reached the end of the test the damage was too severe to consider tackling the following, 30km stage.

Gilles Panizzi managed to beat Jesus Puras on two of today's seven stages, but the Frenchman has already settled for second overall and maximum manufacturers' points for Peugeot. His main goal has been to keep team-mate Didier Auriol at bay - the 1994 world champion drew level (to the tenth of a second) in SS6, but in SS7 Panizzi got a drier run as a rain shower started just as Auriol left the line. The resulting half-minute loss effectively left Auriol with only a safe third place to defend, and he too has settled for his position and manufacturers' points. The third 206 WRC of Marcus Grönholm dropped time in the opening long stage and then retired after losing a wheel in SS8.

Gilles Panizzi said: ''I think we basically need rain if we're to stand a chance of catching Jesus tomorrow but to be honest, I won't be taking any big risks because we are in a very good position for Peugeot. The stages have been very difficult today with the surface and grip levels changing all the time. I don't understand our puncture on the first stage today, either.''

Didier Auriol added: ''It's just bad luck that the rain started for me and not for Gilles or Jesus. If you take away the time we lost there then we'd be right there, fighting for the lead. But there's no point to push extra hard - if Gilles and I both give our absolute maximum then it seems we're level, so I can't really close the gap.''



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