Frenchman Gilles Panizzi has grabbed the lead of the 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rallye Sanremo, which started in earnest in northern Italy today.
Panizzi, who is aiming for a third successive victory on the event, took over the top spot after two of today's eight stages and a string of fastest times moved his Peugeot 206 WRC into a 23-second lead by the end of the day's action.
Panizzi's closest rivals have all been in French machinery - his nearest challenger is Philippe Bugalski's privately-run Citroen Xsara, while his Peugeot team-mates Marcus Grönholm and Richard Burns are closely matched as they fight for third. The Finn inched clear of the Briton on today's closing stage.
The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Richard Burns and Gilles Panizzi have been reliable. Marcus Grönholm, however, encountered a loss of boost pressure this morning and he then suffered brake fade and gearbox glitches in the second group of stages.
Panizzi has been the dominant force during today's stages. Despite the fact that he is still recovering from a shoulder injury, the Frenchman set fastest times on all but one of the day's eight tests to grab the lead and build a 23-second advantage overnight. Team-mate Richard Burns was an early threat, but the Englishman got drawn into a battle with Philippe Bugalski for second overall. By the end of the day, though, the reigning world champion had had to cede that position to his French rival and he then lost third to his recovering team-mate Marcus Grönholm on the day's final stage. Grönholm had led after today's opening test but then the Finn's car lost boost for one test and suffered brake and gearbox glitches for two more.
''It's been going well today and I've got a really good feeling with the car,'' said Panizzi. ''I know I can attack with it. My shoulder is not a big problem for me at all. I know I can drive at this speed for the rest of the rally without taking risks.''
Team-mate Marcus Gronholm added: ''It's been a quite frustrating day because I've got a good feeling with the car and I know from the times of Gilles and Richard that we could have been right up there. But we had this loss of boost and then some more problems this afternoon, so we've got a lot of work to do. Already I think we've given away too much time to Gilles.''
At Ford the Focus RS WRC02s of Colin McRae and Markko Martin have been ok. However, Carlos Sainz's example was forced to retire before the day's fourth stage because of an engine oil leak.
Martin has been the quickest of Ford's drivers. The Estonian threw caution to the wind with experimental set-ups and they worked, allowing him to inch into the top six and become involved in a very close fight with Tommi Mäkinen for fifth overall. The Finn's retirement handed that place to Martin, although he has Citroen privateer Jesus Puras breathing down his neck.