Frenchman Gilles Panizzi has strengthened his grip on the 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Sanremo Rally, which continued in northern Italy today.
Panizzi, who is aiming for his third successive victory on the asphalt event, fended off fellow countryman Philippe Bugalski on today's opening stage and then consolidated his advantage once his rival crashed out on the next test.
Despite a late scare over tyre choice in the final pair of stages this evening, Panizzi arrived back in Sanremo tonight with a 22-second cushion over his Peugeot team-mate Marcus Grönholm.
Subaru's Petter Solberg, however, put in one of the charges of the day and correctly guessed the tricky tyre choice to overhaul reigning world champion Richard Burns for third.
The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Gilles Panizzi and Marcus Grönholm have been reliable today. Richard Burns, meanwhile, has encountered no specific mechanical problems, but the reigning world champion did feel that his car's performance improved when he changed turbo boost settings between the day's third and fourth stages.
Panizzi has consolidated his lead, fending off Philippe Bugalski's privately-run Citroen on the opening stage and then keeping an eye on his team-mates' pace once the Xsara crashed out in SS10. It wasn't without difficulties, though - Bugalski's accident temporarily blocked the stage in front of the leader and he lost over a minute as a result. However, event stewards awarded Panizzi a 'notional' time (that of his team-mate Grönholm) that was considered more representative of his pace, so he was not ultimately disadvantaged by the incident. He then opted for too soft a tyre for the closing two stages but with his team-mates also getting their choices wrong, Panizzi still emerged with a 22-second cushion overnight.
Grönholm had closed the gap to Bugalski before the Frenchman's retirement anyway, but the Finn has been a consistent top-three stage timer today as he pulled away from Richard Burns and kept the gap to Panizzi at around 40 seconds. He closed that to 22 seconds in the final stage of the day.
Burns, meanwhile, has tried various changes in his car's set-up as he tried to regain the pace that he showed in the early stages yesterday. A switch of boost settings helped matters in the middle pair of stages, but the Englishman then lost third to Petter Solberg in the last stage of the day, when he was caught out on too soft a compound of tyre.
''I'm really happy to still have the lead tonight, to be honest,'' said Panizzi. ''I said to Herve (his navigator) before the last stage that we'd lose the lead, because we were on completely the wrong tyres and the car was moving around. In fact, I was left-foot braking and I never left-foot brake normally. So I'm quite confident now with 22 seconds over Marcus.''