Fifty-five of the original 62 starters departed Ajaccio this morning for a mammoth second leg of this 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship - the Tour de Corse.

Only six stages are on the itinerary but they cover 190km, making this one of the longest and toughest days of the year. Overnight rain left the roads damp but blue skies prompted most drivers to select dry weather slick tyres, some adding additional cuts.

The action began south of Ajaccio with the 38.64km test from Ampaza to Petreto, a classic stage which passes through several small villages and climbs the Col de St Eustache before a spectacular descent to the finish. Narrow and winding sections contrast with wide and fast roads and the stage suited Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park to perfection. They were fastest by over four seconds in their Castrol-backed Focus RS World Rally Car to leap from fifth to second, cutting the gap to leader Sebastien Loeb to just 9.6sec. Ford BP team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Pr?vot were sixth fastest in their similar Focus RS to hold third overall, less than a second behind Martin.

The unpredictability of the weather in the mountains became clear for all to see as the blue skies turned dark within minutes and competitors faced heavy rain for the following 15.42km Pont de la Masina - Col St Georges. The change in conditions turned the leaderboard on its head.

M?rtin slid off the road and dropped more than five minutes as he and Park struggled to change a broken right front wheel. The time loss dropped them to 14th. "I was trying too hard to regain the time I lost yesterday when I spun," said the 27-year-old Estonian. "I braked too late for a corner and slid wide into the mountainside. The impact broke the rim and we had to stop and change it. It was my mistake, I was driving too fast. I'm really disappointed because the car was so good and we've lost our chance of victory now. It was difficult on dry weather tyres in the rain but it was the same for most drivers."

Martin's loss was Duval's gain as the 22-year-old Belgian moved into the lead after Sebastien Loeb also slid off the road and dropped 10 minutes.

"That stage was hard. I stalled the car twice at the start and in the heavy rain we were aquaplaning all the way through the stage. In these conditions it's easy to make the wrong tyre choice. We have to be careful and I won't attack yet," said Duval.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen set fastest time in Pont de la Masina in their 2002-specification Focus RS run by M-Sport, their first stage win on a world rally, and 22-year-old Hirvonen was delighted. "I can't believe I've won a stage on my first visit to Corsica. We chose intermediate tyres which weren't so good for the first stage but were perfect for the next when it rained all the way. Running first through the stages means the roads are free of gravel and that helps massively," he said. They lie 12th overall.



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