Peugeot driver Marcus Gr?nholm holds a comfortable lead on the 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rally New Zealand, which continued north of Auckland today.

The Finn and his navigator Timo Rautiainen inched past their Peugeot team-mate Harri Rovanper? this morning, and they then were handed the lead when another 206 WRC driver, Richard Burns, crashed out of the top position in SS15.

His retirement means that Gr?nholm has all-but-guaranteed a second world drivers' title - only his eighth-placed team-mate Gilles Panizzi can still deny him the championship, but he would need to win this event and both of the remaining rounds in Australia and Great Britain to achieve that.

The longest day of the event provided plenty of drama, beyond Burns's retirement. Mitsubishi driver Jani Paasonen crashed out of his strong performance this morning, and Ford's Markko Martin also slid off the road late this afternoon. His retirement means that Peugeot is mathematically assured of a third successive manufacturers' crown.

The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Richard Burns and Marcus Gr?nholm were reliable today. Harri Rovanper?'s car has also run without major problems, although the Finn did feel that he wanted to try different settings on the 206's hydraulic rear anti-roll bar. His is the only 206 fitted with that specification of rear anti-roll bar, but he will switch to a more regular unit tomorrow. The fourth Peugeot of Gilles Panizzi suffered lamp pod failure on this evening's dark stage.

For much of today, Burns looked on course to secure his first victory in a Peugeot 206. He looked able to cope with team-mate Gr?nholm's charge and he extended his cushion over Rovanper? during this morning's stages. But in SS15, he crashed out of a 45-second lead, handing a decisive advantage to Gr?nholm and destroying his own chances of denying the Finn the world title.

Only Gilles Panizzi can stop the Finn from securing a second crown now, but the Frenchman holds eighth overnight and he would have to win this event and the remaining two rounds to stand any chance of stopping Gr?nholm - something that is highly unlikely to say the least.

Harri Rovanper? occupies second overnight, nearly a minute behind his team-mate. The Finn was generally slower than Gr?nholm and Burns during much of today's action.

''It's good news about the championship, of course, but it's a bit sad that it happened because Richard went off,'' commented Gronholm. ''We were having a good fight, though, and I was determined to keep the pressure on because you never know what can happen. Even after we've been in the lead, I've still been pushing quite hard, because I want to keep some concentration and not make any mistakes.''

Richard Burns noted: ''I'm really disappointed, because I desperately wanted to take my first win for Peugeot. It was a fourth-gear right-hand corner and I slid a little wide. There was a left-hander straight after it and it sent the car into the air. We went over a fence and cartwheeled into the trees.''

At Subaru the Impreza WRC2002s of Petter Solberg and Tommi M?kinen have been generally ok, although both suffered mousse insert break-ups at various stages during the day. M?kinen was also less than satisfied by his car's lights in this evening's dark stages.

Solberg and M?kinen started today's tests expecting to fight with the Fords and Jani Paasonen's Mitsubishi for honours behind the Peugeots. That proved the case, although Solberg fared better and he moved clear of his team-mate by the afternoon. He holds third overnight. M?kinen lost time with a big spin in SS15 and he'll start tomorrow in fourth.

''I have to say that I'm very happy,'' said Solberg. ''We have found a good speed that seems enough to beat the Ford and the Hyundais, and that's really all we can expect when the Peugeots are so strong. Tomorrow the aim is to make sure we end up on the podium, and it's looking good for that. On the same day last year, my son was born so I'm determined to give him a podium finish as a birthday present. I'm not going to let go of this one!''

Team-mate M?kinen noted: ''The spin came at virtually the first corner on the stage. We had 300 metres and then a left corner, and the back end just came around. It was quite a big moment and the engine stalled, and we certainly lost some more time while I tried to restart it.''

The Ford Focus RS WRC02s of Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin have run without problems. Martin and Sainz were extremely closely-matched during most of this morning's stages, with the Spaniard regularly quicker but rarely by more than a few tenths of a second. He increased his charge this afternoon, though, moving clear of the Hyundais of Freddy Loix and Juha Kankkunen. The anticipated battle between him and Martin never materialised, though, because Martin slid off in SS14. Like his team-mate Colin McRae yesterday, Martin's car was then hit by another competitor's vehicle. Sainz maintained his pace this evening to hold fifth overnight.

Carlos Sainz said: ''We're still pushing as hard as well can and we've made up some positions today, but we're still seeing an even bigger gap to the Peugeots because they've had cleaner roads. I'm not so surprised that they've been quick here, though, because we saw in Finland that on smooth gravel roads they have good speed. This evening we were able to try some things on the car but we've still made progress. I think now, though, that it's all we can hope for. If we hadn't had our problems yesterday then we could have been right up with Tommi at least.''

The Hyundai Accent WRC3s of Juha Kankkunen and Freddy Loix have been ok today. Armin Schwarz, meanwhile, felt that his car's engine improved when the Hyundai mechanics changed its turbo after SS10. Loix also made changes to his Accent, switching from a mechanical to an 'active' hydraulic rear differential this morning.

Both Kankkunen and Loix have been generally satisfied with their Accents during leg two - Loix more so after he switched to an 'active' rear differential at the final service yesterday. Neither driver encountered any major problems or mistakes, and the dramas which turned the head of the leaderboard upside down allowed them to move up the standings as well. As a result, Kankkunen will start tomorrow in sixth, and Loix in seventh.

The third Accent driver, Armin Schwarz, has struggled to find a rhythm on the New Zealand roads, as he continues to reacclimatise himself with conditions and terrain that he last rallied on seven years ago. The German dropped behind Fran?ois Delecour today, but the retirements of Burns, Paasonen and Martin meant that he moved up to 11th as the leg progressed. He will have to run first on the road tomorrow, however.

Juha Kankkunen noted: ''I know there have been a few retirements today, but I think we do have to be happy with this. Last year we'd have been fighting to get into the top 10 and here we're fighting for points placings. It has to be encouraging for the whole team. When you're anywhere near the points these days then you've done well.''

Team-mate Loix continued: ''Yesterday I really felt towards the end that I just couldn't go any faster, so we had to try to find something else this morning. So we switched from a mechanical rear differential to an active rear differential. In the past, I've never been able to make that work - particularly with the settings of Juha or Armin - but we've taken some elements of my mechanical set-up and used them with the computer-controlled unit and it seems to be working pretty well. The handling is good now. The team has asked me to make sure I get to the finish tomorrow and not take any risks, so that's what I'll be aiming for.''

Over at Skoda the sole remaining Octavia WRC of Toni Gardemeister has been generally reliable, and the young Finn has been happier with the car's performance since he changed rear differential settings and lowered its ride height. He did feel that his tyre choice for the day's longest stage, the 59km SS11, was too hard, however. Gardemeister then complained of excessive oversteer this afternoon, but revisions to the Octavia's rear suspension geometry and a different tyre choice improved that for the final loop of stages of the day.

Gardemeister knew that he'd face a struggle to overhaul the Hyundais of Juha Kankkunen and Freddy Loix today, but the young Finn has experimented with settings and maintained a steady pace to keep his Octavia in touch with the top 10 positions. The retirements of Paasonen, Martin and Burns helped him into ninth by the end of the day.

Gardemeister commented: ''I have quite a good feeling with the car on the stages today, but of course the roads have been cleaning for the guys after me so it's been hard to do really quick times. You can just feel yourself going sideways all the time, losing out at every corner. However, the car's certainly felt better since we made the changes to the ride height and the differential settings.''

Mitsubishi's Jani Paasonen had to retire from today's event after he damaged his radiator in an SS11 accident. Fran?ois Delecour's Lancer also needed attention after he clipped a bridge in SS11, and Ralliart also had to change the windscreen on the car after it cracked in the same stage.

Paasonen started this morning's stages in fifth overall, but he was quickly overhauled by Petter Solberg's Subaru. But the Finn reclaimed fifth when he inched past Tommi M?kinen in SS10. However, in the day's longest stage, Paasonen slid wide at a slow corner eight kilometres after the start and rolled down a bank off the road. The Lancer's radiator was damaged in the incident and Paasonen had to retire.

His team-mate Fran?ois Delecour, meanwhile, has been hampered by his road position - the Frenchman has been the first car into stages, and he's had to cope with the thickest coating of gravel on the surface as a result. He ended the day in 10th, despite a lucky escape when he clipped a bridge in SS11.

Paasonen said: ''I just went too quickly into quite a slow corner. But the braking area had some camber and the car went quite light, so I wasn't able to slow down as much as I wanted to. We went wide, and then the car rolled down about five metres beneath the road. I could see the radiator was damaged and we were losing water, so even though the wheels were all straight, there was no point trying to get back onto the road. I just moved the car to a safe place. I'm disappointed, of course, because I wanted experience of the rally and the car. But I think that we did some good times yesterday and this morning as well. All I can do now is look forward to Australia.''

Fran?ois Delecour added: ''It's been just as difficult as I expected today. You cannot believe how little grip there is when you're running first on the road. On one of the stages this morning we were spinning the wheels for what seemed like 100 metres off the start line! It's not nice at all. I've looked at how Jani was driving and tried to do that myself - it's basically very similar but he goes very late and hard on the brakes. It certainly seems to work, because I've noticed an improvement.''

Of the other entries Kristian Sohlberg continues to hold the lead in the Production Car World Championship section of the event. The Finn's Mitsubishi ended today's stages just under a minute and a half clear of the similar car of Martin Rowe.

Rally Statistics - Leg two:

Starters: 61 crews (31 Group A and 30 Group N) restarted this morning.

Retirements: Burns (GB), Paasonen (FIN), Martin (EE) and 12 other drivers.

Today - Saturday 4 October: Leg 2 started from Auckland at 06h00 and covered 760.46km, including 204.13km on 10 special stages.

Tomorrow - Sunday 5 October: Leg 3 starts from Auckland at 05h00 and covers 421.02km, including 90.19km on eight special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in at the finish control in Manukau at 15h30.

Weather forecast: Overcast and blustery, with showers.

Stage by stage summary - Leg two:

SS9 Mititai finish (20.15kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 10m 05.2
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 10m 06.9
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 10m 16.6

Leaders after SS9:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1h 25m 36.8
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 1h 26m 06.5
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 26m 16.3

SS10 Tokatoka 1 (10.15kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 5m 09.9
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 5m 10.4
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 5m 16.6

Leaders after SS10:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1h 30m 47.2
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 1h 31m 20.0
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 31m 26.2

SS11 Parahi/Araru (59.00kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 33m 37.7
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 33m 44.6
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 33m 37.7

Leaders after SS11:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2h 04m 24.9
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 05m 10.8
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 2h 05m 15.3

SS12 Batley (17.46kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 36.4
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 9m 40.2
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 9m 50.1

Leaders after SS12:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2h 14m 05.1
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 14m 47.2
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 2h 15m 05.4

SS13 Waipu Gorge (11.24kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 6m 25.5
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 26.8
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 6m 28.4

Leaders after SS13:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2h 20m 30.6
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 21m 14.0
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 2h 21m 33.8

SS14 Brooks (16.03kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 9m 37.1
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 38.0
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 9m 43.9

Leaders after SS14:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2h 30m 07.7
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 30m 52.0
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 2h 31m 17.7

SS15 Paparoa Station (11.64kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 11.9
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 6m 17.5
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 6m 18.0

Leaders after SS15:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 37m 03.9
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 2h 37m 35.2
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 2h 38m 55.0

SS16 New Cassidy (21.64kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 12m 16.0
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 12m 26.8
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 12m 28.8

Leaders after SS16:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 49m 19.9
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 2h 50m 02.4
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 2h 51m 23.8

SS17 Mititai (26.67kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 13m 32.8
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 13m 41.7
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 13m 41.7
4. Sainz (E) Ford 13m 48.5

Leaders after SS17:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 3h 02m 52.7
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 3h 03m 44.1
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 3h 05m 05.5

SS18 Tokatoka 2 (10.15kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 5m 18.4
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 5m 21.6
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 5m 22.3

Leaders after SS18:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 3h 08m 11.1
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot +55.8
3. Solberg (N) Subaru +2m 16.0
4. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +3m 19.8
5. Sainz (E) Ford +4m 07.6
6. Kankkunen (FIN) Hyundai +5m 15.9
7. Loix (B) Hyundai +5m 39.8
8. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +6m 30.7
9. Gardemeister (FIN) Skoda +6m 38.3
10. Delecour (F) Mitsubishi +8m 00.9