Frenchman Gilles Panizzi has strengthened his grip on the 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Sanremo Rally, which continued in northern Italy today.

Panizzi, who is aiming for his third successive victory on the asphalt event, fended off fellow countryman Philippe Bugalski on today's opening stage and then consolidated his advantage once his rival crashed out on the next test.

Despite a late scare over tyre choice in the final pair of stages this evening, Panizzi arrived back in Sanremo tonight with a 22-second cushion over his Peugeot team-mate Marcus Gr?nholm.

Subaru's Petter Solberg, however, put in one of the charges of the day and correctly guessed the tricky tyre choice to overhaul reigning world champion Richard Burns for third.

The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Gilles Panizzi and Marcus Gr?nholm have been reliable today. Richard Burns, meanwhile, has encountered no specific mechanical problems, but the reigning world champion did feel that his car's performance improved when he changed turbo boost settings between the day's third and fourth stages.

Panizzi has consolidated his lead, fending off Philippe Bugalski's privately-run Citroen on the opening stage and then keeping an eye on his team-mates' pace once the Xsara crashed out in SS10. It wasn't without difficulties, though - Bugalski's accident temporarily blocked the stage in front of the leader and he lost over a minute as a result. However, event stewards awarded Panizzi a 'notional' time (that of his team-mate Gr?nholm) that was considered more representative of his pace, so he was not ultimately disadvantaged by the incident. He then opted for too soft a tyre for the closing two stages but with his team-mates also getting their choices wrong, Panizzi still emerged with a 22-second cushion overnight.

Gr?nholm had closed the gap to Bugalski before the Frenchman's retirement anyway, but the Finn has been a consistent top-three stage timer today as he pulled away from Richard Burns and kept the gap to Panizzi at around 40 seconds. He closed that to 22 seconds in the final stage of the day.

Burns, meanwhile, has tried various changes in his car's set-up as he tried to regain the pace that he showed in the early stages yesterday. A switch of boost settings helped matters in the middle pair of stages, but the Englishman then lost third to Petter Solberg in the last stage of the day, when he was caught out on too soft a compound of tyre.

"I'm really happy to still have the lead tonight, to be honest," said Panizzi. "I said to Herve (his navigator) before the last stage that we'd lose the lead, because we were on completely the wrong tyres and the car was moving around. In fact, I was left-foot braking and I never left-foot brake normally. So I'm quite confident now with 22 seconds over Marcus."

Team-mate Gronholm noted: "It's just a bit of a shame that we lost the time to Gilles yesterday, because if we hadn't we'd be that bit closer and it would be easier to put him under more pressure. As it is, if we have a good stage we can take a few seconds from him but then he has the ability to take that time back in the very next run. I think the clever thing to do tomorrow is to settle for second and take some good points."

At Subaru meanwhile the remaining Impreza WRC2002s of Petter Solberg and Achim Mortl have been reliable, although Mortl damaged his car's bodywork extensively in the accident which ultimately forced his retirement.

Solberg has charged during leg two, inching away from Jesus Puras and moving ahead of Markko Martin to put pressure on third-placed Richard Burns. Fastest times in both of the last two stages (thanks to an inspired tyre choice) catapulted the Norwegian into the final podium placing, more than 20 seconds clear of the reigning champion.

Subaru lost the second of its Imprezas after this morning's second stage. Achim Mortl knocked the right-rear wheel of his car out of line and then further down the stage, he lost control under heavy braking after a fast straight and slid backwards into a bridge. Mortl reported double vision after the incident so Subaru withdrew him on medical grounds.

"I don't think there's much more left! We've played with a few settings this morning and I've been quite pleased by the results, but where there's corner-cutting possible we've been taking quite big chunks, so there's not much more that we can do," commented Solberg. "Tomorrow the aim is to keep the advantage over Richard, of course."

At Ford a lack of brake bite in the day's final stage aside, Markko Martin's Focus RS WRC02 has been reliable today, but Colin McRae's car suffered a failure of its differential control box at the start of this morning's second stage. The problem effectively left the Scot with only front-wheel drive exiting tight corners.

Martin expected a tough battle today to hold on to his overnight fifth place and even though he was promoted when Philippe Bugalski crashed out, the young Estonian has had to dig deep to compete with the charging Petter Solberg and Jesus Puras. Martin slid into a wall briefly in SS10, and then he felt that the sizeable corner cuts required in SS12 weren't well suited to the Focus. As a result, Martin dropped behind Solberg by the early afternoon but he still remains in touch with the Norwegian and Richard Burns in fifth overall.

Colin McRae lost time with differential control problems this morning, but once the Scot got a clean run in SS11 and SS12 he was able to put pressure on Freddy Loix for eighth overall. He grabbed that position when the Belgian slid off on the day's last stage.

Colin McRae said: "The best we can hope for now - unless someone in front has a problem - is to hold position and score manufacturers points but it's going to be a tall order to score in the drivers' series now."

Fran?ois Delecour's Mitsubishi Lancer Evo WRC2 lost turbo boost in this morning's opening stage when a pipe came loose. The Frenchman was able to rectify the problem before the following 42km test, however. He then chose the wrong tyres for the final pair of tests.

Mitsubishi elected to withdraw Alister McRae from the event last night on medical grounds. The Scot crashed while mountain biking last week and he was clearly exhausted by the end of yesterday's action. With little to gain after his self-induced smashed windscreen, McRae flew home this morning to enjoy a couple of extra days' recuperation before he flies on to Rally New Zealand preparations.

Delecour, meanwhile, lost time with a lack of turbo boost in this morning's opening stage but the French driver fixed the problem himself before the following stage and he has kept his Lancer on the fringes of the top 10. The late problems which befell Toni Gardemeister and Freddy Loix were enough to promote Delecour to 10th by the time he arrived back in Sanremo this evening.

Delecour commented: "The problem this morning was frustrating because we've shown since then that we can do times good enough to fight with the guys who are running near us. I still think that we've made a good improvement with the car for this event - of course there is a lot of work to do, but I believe we've seen a step forward so far."

At Skoda Toni Gardemeister's and Roman Kresta's Octavia WRCs have been reliable. Kenneth Eriksson's car has not suffered any serious problems either, although the Swede did complain of a faulty wastegate controller which caused excess turbo lag in SS12.

Gardemeister has enjoyed a clean run today and the retirement of Philippe Bugalski and differential problems for Bruno Thiry were enough to ensure that the young Finn had inched into the top 10 by lunchtime. He consolidated that placing this afternoon but in the last stage of the day, he slid off the road and out of the event.

Kenneth Eriksson and Roman Kresta have continued to learn as the former tries to introduce a new driving style on asphalt and the latter gains further experience of the Sanremo stages. They arrived back in Sanremo this evening in 11th and 12th respectively.

Kenneth Eriksson said: "I've really been trying here to change my driving style because in the past, I've had a reputation for wearing out the tyres earlier than the other guys. I know what I have to do - it's about being smoother into the corners and less aggressive with the steering - but it still takes time. I'm quite pleased, though, with how I'm adapting as the rally continues."

Team-mate Roman Kresta continued: "It's like a big school for me here, really. The roads are very difficult, because they can suddenly change from very fast to very twisty. I'm glad that we've had some reliability today, though, because it allows me to have confidence in the car and see how my pacenotes have worked."

Freddy Loix's Hyundai Accent WRC3 has been reliable, although the Belgian still felt that it lacked pulling power in long hills that his car had during the pre-event test.

Loix started leg two in ninth overall and apart from the retirement of Philippe Bugalski, the Belgian was unable to make up any placings. He felt that his car was slower on long uphill stretches than it was during the pre-event test, but Loix was still able to fend off Colin McRae and retain eighth overall as he entered this afternoon's final pair of stages. However, he then slid off on the final stage, hitting a low wall and causing extensive left-rear suspension damage to his Accent. He struggled back to service in Imperia on three wheels and a brake disc, but he'd dropped more than 20 minutes in the incident.

Loix noted: "It was a downhill section and quite slippery, because the surface was a little damp. As I turned into a corner the front wheels slipped, like I was having understeer, but then it found grip and we went straight into the crash barrier. I tried to avoid it but like Armin (Schwarz) yesterday, we hit a rear wheel and broke a bolt. We strapped the wheel on to get to the end of the stage but we had to go very slowly. It was my mistake and it's a great shame for everyone in the team."

Of the other entries Philippe Bugalski's hopes of a privateer entry winning a WRC round outright ended on today's second stage, when he understeered off and damaged one of his Xsara's front wheels and its rear suspension. His Piedrafita 'team-mate' Jesus Puras enjoyed a better day, moving his car into sixth overall, half a minute clear of another privateer World Rally Car, the Peugeot 206 WRC of Cedric Robert.

Problems hit Bruno Thiry's private 206, however - he opted for intermediate tyres for the final pair of stages but when the rain failed to materialise, the Belgian dropped to 13th overnight as a result.

Meanwhile, Andrea Dallavilla has finally managed to eke out a narrow advantage in the battle for Junior World Championship honours. The Italian leads his fellow countryman Giandomenico Basso by just under 10 seconds after a change of suspension and steering rack improved his Citroen Saxo.

Another Italian, Nicola Caldani, holds third, with series leader Daniel Sola in fourth. The Super 1600 category is actually led by Renato Travaglia's Peugeot. Travaglia, who is not registered for the Junior WRC, assumed the top spot when Simon Jean-Joseph's Renault suffered engine problems.

Rally statistics - leg two:

Starters: 43 crews (42 Group A and 1 Group N) started this morning.

Retirements: A. McRae (GB), Bugalski (F), Mortl (A), Gardemeister (FIN) and 6 other drivers.

Today - Saturday 21 September: Leg 2 started from Sanremo at 06h00 and covered 520.83km, including 150.57km on six special stages.

Tomorrow - Sunday 22 September: Leg 3 starts from Sanremo at 06h00 and covers 327.28km, including 88.02km on four special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in at the finish control in Sanremo at 15h00.

Weather forecast: Fine, but still with a chance of showers and thunderstorms.

Stage by stage summary - Leg two:

SS9 San Romolo 1 (10.69kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 45.6
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 6m 49.4
3. Bugalski (F) Citroen 6m 50.1

Leaders after SS9:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 1h 43m 24.1
2. Bugalski (F) Citroen 1h 43m 46.8
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 43m 58.5

SS10 Colle Langan 1 (42.31kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Citroen 28m 52.8
1. Panizzi* (F) Peugeot 28m 52.8
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 29m 10.8

* notional time applied by Stewards

Leaders after SS10:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2h 12m 16.9
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 12m 51.3
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2h 13m 37.9

SS11 Cosio 2 (19.19kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 12m 11.4
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 12m 12.4
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 12m 16.3

Leaders after SS11:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2h 24m 29.3
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 25m 02.7
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2h 25m 56.6

SS12 San Bartolomeo 2 (25.38kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 15m 03.3
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 15m 08.9
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 15m 09.3

Leaders after SS12:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2h 39m 32.6
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 40m 13.0
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2h 41m 05.7

SS13 San Romolo 2 2 (10.69kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 7m 03.1
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 7m 04.9
3. Martin (EE) Ford 7m 06.9

Leaders after SS13:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2h 46m 41.1
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 47m 17.9
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2h 48m 16.2

SS14 Colle Langan 2 (42.31kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 28m 59.9
2. Martin (EE) Ford 29m 13.7
3. Puras (E) Citroen 29m 19.0

Leaders after SS14:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 3h 16m 17.8
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot +22.1
3. Solberg (N) Subaru +59.7
4. Burns (GB) Peugeot +1m 20.8
5. Martin (EE) Ford +1m 26.8
6. Puras (E) Citroen +1m 52.0
7. Robert (F) Peugeot +2m 23.8
8. C.McRae (GB) Ford +3m 44.3
9. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +5m 17.2
10. Delecour (F) Mitsubishi +6m 03.9