Finnish drivers Harri Rovanperä and Marcus Grönholm have become embroiled in a battle for the lead on the second round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Swedish Rally, which started from Karlstad this morning.
Their two Peugeot 206 WRCs ended the last of today's five stages separated by just 0.9 seconds (in Grönholm favour), with their nearest rival - third-placed Colin McRae - more than half a minute behind.
Fresh snowfalls made conditions extremely slippery on the Swedish roads today, particularly for the first few crews on the stages since they often swept the loose snow clear for the crews running further down the order. One of the main victims of this was world championship leader Tommi Mäkinen, who dropped outside the top ten before retiring with an overheating engine after he clipped a snow bank.
The three Peugoet 206 WRCs of Marcus Grönholm and Richard Burns have run without significant mechanical problems today. Burns did complain of stalling under wheelspin on the day's last stage, though. Harri Rovanperä lost time during the final pair of tests when a suspected throttle sensor problem drained his confidence in anything other than long straights.
Rovanperä and Grönholm set fastest times on three of today's stages to move clear of their opposition at the head of the leaderboard. Rovanperä was generally the quicker of the two until lunchtime, but in the day's last pair of stages a throttle problem cost him enough time for Grönholm to sneak ahead - by just 0.9 seconds. After this morning's second stage, Peugeot enjoyed a one-two-three 'lock-out' at the top of the leaderboard, but then Richard Burns hit trouble in SS3. The reigning world champion slid off briefly, filling the front of his car with snow. He and navigator Robert Reid had to stop soon afterwards to scoop snow out of the front of the car, to prevent an overheating engine. The resulting time loss dropped the Englishman outside the top ten. They also stalled at a hairpin in the day's penultimate stage.
Harri Rovanperä said: ''The throttle problem cost me some time because I had no confidence to really accelerate in the middle of the corner in case it gave the car too much throttle. It affected braking too.''
Marcus Grönholm added: ''I'm sure Harri has had better road conditions than us today, but he's made good use of that. Tomorrow, when Harri and I are running close together on the road, we'll make a bigger attack.''
At Ford the Focus RS WRC02s of Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae have run without major difficulties. Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz have both suffered from relatively high positions in the starting order today - Sainz in particular lost valuable time in SS2 when a heavy shower coated the road in fresh snow. McRae has maintained a top six position throughout today's stages, although the Scot has already admitted that he is unlikely to be able to stop either Rovanperä or Grönholm. McRae reckoned that a snow tyre would have been slightly better than his choice (ice tyre) in the day's longest stage, SS3, but he still arrived back in Karlstad this evening in third overall after a fastest time in SS5.
Carlos Sainz said: ''It's been difficult today - when there's fresh snow you just end up cleaning it off the road for the guys further back. I'm not sure what the difference is to Marcus, because he's running quite close to me on the road - maybe it's tyres, the car, the driver. But we're not so far away from the top six, so I think we can still fight for points.''