26 October 2003
Panizzi pinches Spanish win at death.
After two days of sunshine the rain finally arrived for the final leg of this year's Rallye Catalunya. Overnight rally leader Sebastien Loeb looked to have everything under control, going into the final stage of the rally with a 31-second advantage over Gilles Panizzi.
Peugeot man Panizzi had battled back throughout today, making up the time he dropped to Markko Martin [Ford] towards the end of leg two. With only 10.3 seconds over Martin, Panizzi had to push hard through the last test. He did just that, setting fastest time – which he thought was enough to clinch the runners-up spot. He'd managed that, but there was more to come...
Loeb's tyres weren't working through the final test and the Frenchmen swapped places. Panizzi thus took Peugeot's first win since Rally Argentina, while Loeb was second with Martin third.
The chase for this year's FIA World Rally Championship looks just as difficult as ever to call. Loeb leads the standings, although he and Sainz are tied on points, but the Xsara driver gets the nod, having won more rallies than his Spanish rival.
Petter Solberg – who recovered from a 50-second penalty on the first day to make fifth place on the Lloret de Mar-based event is third with long-time series leader Richard Burns dropping to fourth, six points off the top, after crashing out of the event this morning.
The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Panizzi and Marcus Gronholm ran without any reliability issues on leg three, while Burns put his car off the road terminally on the final stage of day three's opening loop.
Panizzi's decision to run on intermediate tyre with extra cuts worked well on stages 17 and 18, but he was concerned about the long stage and how the tyre would cope. In the end he had no problems, although he was annoyed that he didn't go for a full wet tyre. His choice of an intermediate with cuts for the final loop worked a treat, however. Pushing hard to hold Martin off for his second place, Panizzi emerged from the final test as winner after Loeb had taken the wrong tyre.
Despite taking the wrong tyres this morning, Gronholm was still able to catch and pass Colin McRae on the third stage of the day. The outgoing world champion picked the right rubber for the final loop and elbowed his way up into sixth place at the finish.
Burns' rally ended on the third stage this morning, when the Englishman was caught out by the conditions.
"It was a lot like Marcus in Sanremo," said Burns, "The car went off the road on some mud, hit the wall and broke the steering. I tried to go on, but straight away it was clear that there was nothing I could do about the damage. We don't carry any spares in the car and that was the end of that."
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