Just 38 of the original 49 starters left a sunny Perth this morning for the second leg of round ten of the FIA World Rally Championship. Ahead lay eight more gravel speed tests to the east, split into two groups of four, before two final runs around the spectacular Gloucester Park super special stage in the heart of Western Australia's capital city.

Ford BP Rallye Sport's Markko Martin and Michael Park enjoyed a fierce battle with the soon-to-be retired Tommi Makinen for fourth place during this morning's opening group of special stages. The duo traded times throughout the four tests, Martin's Castrol-branded Ford Focus RS World Rally Car arriving at Jarrahdale service park having reduced the gap from 4.8 seconds overnight to 3.6 seconds.

The 27-year-old Estonian driver lost a few seconds on the opening 8.88km Beraking East, a notoriously bumpy stage full of crests and jumps, when he stalled his Focus RS on the startline. However, he fought back to set fourth fastest time on the 20.49km Helena East, the longest test of the day, to reduce the gap to Makinen to just 1.8sec. The Finn eased away again on the 12.60km Helena West but another fourth quickest time for Martin through the 17.31km Helena South narrowed the margin again.

"I'm still struggling to find any consistency and rhythm and it's not easy for me," said Martin. "My pace notes are not bad on the fast sections but on the twistier sections they're far too slow. I don't want to have to rely on memory because there's no margin for error here as the trees are so close to the edge of the road. The Focus is great, it's me that's the problem. It just shows that even if the car is fantastic, the driver has to be on form as well and this just isn't my weekend."

Ford BP team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot made good progress this morning in their similar Focus RS. The Belgians moved ahead of Mikko Hirvonen in Beraking East and then overhauled Didier Auriol in Helena East to climb into tenth. "It's been better than yesterday so far," said Duval, who lost a few seconds when he braked too late and overshot a junction in Helena South. "The stages are wet in places and dry in others but I've more confidence this morning. Maybe that's because the corners aren't as blind as yesterday and I can see round them more."

Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen, driving an M-Sport-run 2002-specification Focus RS, lie 11th, embroiled in a close battle with Duval and Auriol. The Finns are just 7.6sec behind Auriol and 2.6 adrift of Duval. "The stages are more difficult today," said Hirvonen. "They're much faster but narrower and more technical and they feel slippery. The drier conditions mean the roads are cleaning quickly and I can see a pretty clear line where the cars ahead have swept the loose gravel away."

 

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