Overnight leader Marcus Gronholm and Carlos Sainz fought tooth and nail for supremacy today [Saturday] during the second leg of the Rally Argentina.
Gronholm was fastest on three of the opening four stages to extend his lead to 16.4 seconds. However, he could not shake off Sainz. The Spaniard reduced the deficit to 12.9 seconds with two fastest times in stage 17 and 18 before Gronholm crashed out on stage 19.
"There was a right hand corner with a rock sticking out of the bank, which we didn't have marked in our notes," explained Gronholm. "That took the wheel off, but we still could have finished the stage with three wheels. Unfortunately, the damage to the suspension also damaged the driveshaft, which broke the timing belt. So the engine stopped and there was nothing more we could do."
Sainz thus ended the day with a 1 minute 36.2 second lead over team-mate Sebastien Loeb, and seemingly well placed to take the victory. The Spaniard though is not 'counting his chicken's yet'.
"I'm now in the lead, but I have seen so many situations turn upside down during my career that I am not likely to get carried away," he said. "We will remain calm until the finish. Until then, we will try to keep the pace, and to avoid making any mistakes, especially in 'Mina Clavero' and 'El Cóndor'..."
Loeb's only problem meanwhile came when he incurred a 20 second penalty after his mechanics had to repair a cracked alternator bracket, other than that he is in a comfortable second, and looking to further increase his advantage in the drivers' championship.
Francois Duval looks set to take the final podium place for Ford having driven a careful and solid 'race'.
"I didn't take any risks," commented Duval. "The car felt too hard this afternoon and it was quite hard on my neck. But I've been happy with the Focus today and the afternoon stages were nice and flowing. The super special stages tonight were cut up but it wasn't a big problem. The last two tests tomorrow will be difficult. There are huge stones both on the inside and outside of bends so I must drive carefully. Stephane believes they are the most difficult stages in the whole championship."
Subaru's Mikko Hirvonen has recovered from yesterday's time loss to hold fourth, despite sliding off the road into a field on stage 15, while Harri Rovanpera enjoyed an untroubled day to climb to fifth ahead of Argentine private entrant Luis Perez Companc.
"Today's stages were amongst the most difficult of the entire rally," reckoned Rovanpera. "In the morning it was extremely slippery and it was a constant struggle to keep the car under control. In the afternoon we tried to settle into a rhythm in order to keep a fast and consistent pace. But with the time that we lost yesterday, it was always going to be a struggle. Now it's a question of continuing to push, but we also have to make sure we bring back some points."