An impressive field of rally drivers, race specialists and bike racers gave the spectators plenty of excitement today in the Canary Islands, scene of the Nations Cup and Rally Masters phases of the Race of Champions weekend.

In the final of the Nations Cup, the French line-up defeated Italy, while Germany's Armin Schwarz took the laurels in the Michelin ROC-Rally Masters after eliminating Danish driver Tom Kristensen in the final. Their result earns them a place in the main attraction of the weekend tomorrow, the prestigious Race of Champions itself.

Highlight of today's action, the second running of the Michelin ROC-Nations Cup lived every bit up to its promise with a festival of exciting duels between some of the world's top rally drivers, circuit specialists and bikers.

The Finnish team, which won the inaugural Nations Cup in 1999, was defeated in the semi-finals by an Italian side led by the flamboyant Valentino Rossi who proved as skilled at the wheel of a 160 bhp ROC-Buggy as he is behind the handlebars of his 500cc Honda.

The 2000 GP500 vice-Champion won all his heats, until he faced his Grand Prix rival Regis Laconi in the final. The Frenchman went on to set the fastest lap of all the bikers today, and with Gilles Panizzi and Yvan Muller also winning their matches in a nail-biting final, the French trio safely secured victory in the 2000 Nations Cup.

Rossi explained, "I was a bit disappointed with the Buggies after yesterday's practice session and I would have preferred to race in the Toyota Corolla WRC's. Today, however, I've had a great day. After qualifying, Armin Schwarz came up to me and suggested I should take up rallying full time. That made me feel extremely proud!"

A surprised Tom Kristensen (2000 Le Mans 24 Hours winner, International All-Stars team) added, "We were knocked out in the qualifying round of the Nations Cup. So, when I was told I had qualified for the Rally Masters semi-finals, I could hardly believe it!"

"This is my first ever experience of racing on the loose." Admitted the Dane, "It was fantastic to drive the Toyota, braking with my left foot. It's a technique I often use in my Audi. Today, I have been trying to imitate Stig Blomqvist after sitting alongside him and watching him during practice yesterday!"

Regis Laconi (12th in the 2000 GP500 World Championship) was delighted to have beaten Rossi; "I set the fastest time of all the bikers today in my race against Valentino in the final of the Nations Cup. That was tremendous."

Laconi then described his technique, "I have understood that it is best to drive smoothly when you're on four wheels. We bikers are at the limit all the time. Especially with the Buggy, you've really got to be careful with your cornering lines to optimise traction. I have always loved rallying and, who knows, I might one day take it up seriously when my Grand Prix career comes to an end!"

Darkness had begun to fall on the island of Gran Canaria when the four semi-finalists of the Michelin ROC-Rally Masters eventually took to the track. Armin Schwarz lived up to his tag of favourite by securing his second successive win in the competition thanks to his victory over Tom Kristensen.

Kristensen nevertheless caused a big upset by making it all the way to the final after defeating local star Flavio Alonso, the winner of yesterday's Michelin ROC-Spanish Masters. Today's other semi-finalist was the promising young British driver Niall McShea. Finalists Schwarz and Kristensen now both go through to the Michelin Race Of Champions.

The victorious Armin Schwarz said afterwards; "My run with the German team in the Nations Cup didn't last very long since we were beaten in the qualifying round. On the other hand, I didn't have too many problems in the Rally Masters. Even so, I lost my concentration a bit in my first heat as we left the start line! In the final, against Tom, I also had to push hard after losing a bit of time through the wet portion of the track."

In the Michelin ROC-Legends, Stig Blomqvist won all his heats to beat fellow countryman Bjorn Waldegard in the final. For the second consecutive year, the Swedish veteran has earned himself a place in the Michelin Race of Champions itself against the somewhat younger generation of stars.

Didier Auriol and Marcus Gr?nholm both only arrived in Gran Canaria this afternoon but had time to put in a few practice laps in preparation for their battle tomorrow against Gilles Panizzi, Armin Schwarz, Tommi M?kinen, Stig Blomqvist, Tom Kristensen and Valentino Rossi who already have a day's sport behind them to get them warmed up.