Peugeot driver Marcus Gronholm has taken an early advantage on the 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Telstra Rally Australia, which started in earnest today.
The Finn and his navigator Timo Rautiainen set fastest times on all but one of today's forest stages to arrive back at this evening's superspecial in host city Perth with a lead of around half a minute.
Australia's stages traditionally punish the first few crews in the running order, since they are forced to sweep clear loose gravel and reveal a grippier surface underneath. But heavy overnight rain left many of the roads coated in standing water instead. That allowed the frontrunners to maintain their advantage: Carlos Sainz, Harri Rovanpero and Petter Solberg all featured strongly, although Gronholm's team-mate Richard Burns was forced to retire his 206 WRC with clutch problems.
The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Gronholm and Rovanpera have been reliable today. Burns was forced to retire his example though when it hit clutch problems on the penultimate forest stage of the day.
Gronholm realised when heavy rain hit Perth last night that he stood a better chance than normal running first on the road today. With the usually-troublesome loose gravel packed down by the overnight showers, the Finn was able to inch into the lead on this morning's second stage. He didn't look back after that, setting a string of fastest times as he built up an advantage of almost half a minute.
His team-mate Burns looked set to be his closest and most consistent challenger, and the Englishman recovered from a cautious start to move into second overall by lunchtime. But his car succumbed to clutch and gearbox problems in the penultimate forest stage of the day and he was forced to retire.
Peugeot's third driver, Rovanpera, finished the day in fourth overall after a consistent performance today.
''The rain last night helped me for sure today, because there wasn't so much loose gravel in the morning,'' noted Gronholm. ''It started to dry a bit in the day's longest stage and I was surprised that the rest of the guys didn't take time from me in there but after that, we were using most of the roads for the second time so they were clean anyway. There's a long way to go yet but I'm feeling quite confident.''
At Subaru the Impreza WRC2002s of Petter Solberg and Tommi Makinen have run without any significant problems.
After Solberg's fastest time at last night's superspecial in Perth, Subaru started today with high hopes. But although the Norwegian and team-mate Makinen have been among the leading non-Peugeots, they have been unable to really threaten Gronholm's advantage at the head of the field. Solberg started best of the Impreza drivers, holding the overall lead after the second stage and then occupying second spot once Gronholm got into his stride mid-morning.
Makinen struggled on the opening three stages after he opted for Pirelli's wider tyre. But their fortunes reversed for the following two tests, as Solberg switched to a harder compound that didn't work and Makinen opted for the narrower Pirelli and improved his pace. Solberg benefited from Burns's retirement, though and finished leg 1 second overall. Mäkinen held fifth, albeit just nine seconds behind Rovanpera.