Reigning FIA World Rally Champion Marcus Grönholm has strengthened his lead on the penultimate round of this year's series, the Telstra Rally Australia, which continued today.
The Peugeot driver and navigator Timo Rautiainen set two fastest times on this morning's opening pair of tests to more than treble their advantage over Richard Burns. They then consolidated their position with further fastest times this afternoon to end the day, with a 34.3s cushion.
The organisers' decision last night to not allow Colin McRae to nominate his start position for today (due to his late arrival at the selection process) affected the world championship leader badly, as he dropped nearly a minute to Grönholm and dropped to fifth. His Ford team moved François Delecour took to the front of the field in an attempt to sweep some of the loose gravel off the road before the Scot. But the Frenchman crashed heavily in today's third stage, halting the test and hospitalising his navigator Daniel Grataloup with a shoulder injury.
At Peugeot Marcus Grönholm has been much happier with his car today, after Peugeot engineers changed all of the steering rack and power steering system at yesterday evening's final service. But team-mate Didier Auriol hit transmission problems on the day's second test, leaving the handling of his 206 snakelike on the faster sections. A change of all three differentials at the second service solved the problem. Harri Rovanperä was troubled by excessive tyre wear on his 206 on the opening pair of stages but his and Gilles Panizzi's cars ran without major problems.
Grönholm set fastest times on all of today's stages to extend his overnight advantage. The Finn has been more satisfied with his car's handling after a complete change of the steering rack and power steering system last night. Didier Auriol was slowed slightly by wayward handling on today's second stage. The problem was traced to a transmission glitch and solved by changing all three differentials at second service. Auriol was thus able to hold onto his third position. Harri Rovanperä lost time on today's second stage after wearing out his front tyres on the first, longer test but the Finn remains in a comfortable fourth overall. Gilles Panizzi found today's tests more difficult than yesterday's but the asphalt expert still holds eighth.
Marcus Gronholm said: ''It's much better today. Now I have a car that is just as I want it to be - the steering is more precise again, like it should be. I've been pushing quite hard today but I'm still not taking any risks. Tomorrow's a short day but a lot can still happen. I'm quite confident, though.''
Didier Auriol added: ''The car was incredibly bad to drive when I had the transmission problem. It was virtually impossible to keep it in a straight line - it was snaking everywhere. But the mechanics did a good job and it's working fine again. I don't know if we can catch Richard tomorrow but we'll keep pushing at this level.''
The Subaru Impreza WRC2001s of Richard Burns and Petter Solberg have been reliable today. Toshihiro Arai's car had to retire at the end of the day's first stage, though, after the Japanese driver hit a tree and his engine overheated.
Burns has been able to pull further clear of Didier Auriol today, but the Briton hasn't managed to match Marcus Grönholm's pace and as a result, he arrived back in Perth this evening in a relatively lonely second place. Petter Solberg, meanwhile, needed only one stage to move clear of Tommi Mäkinen and into sixth overall but the pair have swapped seconds all day and the young Norwegian eventually finished the last forest test less than three seconds behind four-times world champion. Toshihiro Arai slid into a tree on this morning's first stage and although he and navigator Glenn Macneall reached the end of the test, their engine was too badly damaged to continue.