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G'holm takes the lead in NZ, after Burns goes out.


Peugeot driver Marcus Grönholm 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 Rovanperä 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 Grönholm 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 Grönholm were reliable today. Harri Rovanperä'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 Grönholm's charge and he extended his cushion over Rovanperä during this morning's stages. But in SS15, he crashed out of a 45-second lead, handing a decisive advantage to Grönholm 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 Grönholm - something that is highly unlikely to say the least.

Harri Rovanperä occupies second overnight, nearly a minute behind his team-mate. The Finn was generally slower than Grönholm 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.''



Related Pictures

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Peugeot`s Richard Burns crashed out of the Rally New Zealand after rolling in SS15. Burns lost control 11 km`s into the stage throwing away a commanding 44.3 second lead
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