Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has maintained his lead on the Rallye Catalunya, following the first three stages of leg two today, the Frenchman now has Ford's Markko Martin second though, team-mate Carlos Sainz having dropped down to fourth.

In the first test this morning, Olost 1 [SS9], renowned asphalt ace Gilles Panizzi was fastest for the stage win, with Martin second and Loeb third.

Clearly feeling more comfortable with the set up of his Peugeot following Friday's shaky start, at the end of the test the Frenchman lay 31.2 seconds off the overall lead, and with more than 200kph left to run, he was looking good for a strong finish.

Not so for Skoda and Didier Auriol. Having already picked up a 20 second time penalty for being late out of the day's first service when work on his car's turbo ran over, the Frenchman's Fabia suffered a burned out clutch 3km in. He was forced to retire, bringing his 150th WRC event to an end.

Sainz managed only ninth fastest, and fell to fourth overall, while Francois Duval endured a left tyre vibration. He was fourth fastest. After the finish, crews travelled 7.51km north to the start of SS10.

Less than 3.2 seconds separated the top five drivers as they completed the 14km Lluca stage [SS10]. This time it was Martin who clinched the win, with team-mate Duval taking second and Richard Burns, third. Panizzi and Loeb were next up to round off the top five.

Struggling with the handling of his Citroen Xsara and unhappy with the suspension set-up changes that had been made during the morning's first service, Sainz finished sixth fastest, 6.1 seconds slower than the leader. His team-mate Colin McRae was twelfth fastest, complaining of a brake problems.

A contrast to the previous flat-out speed test, the abrasive Lluca stage presented drivers with a series of twists and turns, with two corners near the end that became increasingly slippery as the leading cars cut it, dragging dirt and gravel onto the road.

SS11 - Sant Boi de Llu?an?s 1 [12.85km] - saw another win for Panizzi, but once again it was tight at the top. Completing the test just half a slower than the Frenchman, young guns Martin and Loeb set exactly the same time to tie for second, while Burns was 2.1 seconds slower for fourth.

Speaking in service after the trio of tests, Panizzi said: "The first stage this morning was clean, but the other two were really dirty, where lots of people had been cutting the corners. I had to take big cuts to avoid the dirt on the road, but the car is working very well indeed. I'd say that we're not quite as quick as we can be yet, but we're certainly not far off."

Team-mate Burns added: "The set-up of the car didn't work very well for the first stage this morning, but it was good for the other two stages which were more twisty. The car was really attacking the corners well, but I'm going to make a couple of changes at service to make it better on the faster stuff."

Petter Solberg meanwhile had a good run, the Norwegian finish sixth fastest in SS11, ahead of Sainz, McRae and Marcus Gronholm.

"Those stages were really fast and very difficult," said Solberg, "The surface is so smooth and we were struggling a bit. You have to remember that Corsica is very abrasive and they are two completely different types of surface. But, I'm happy with the way I drove on the last two stages [SS10 and SS11] and we're hanging in there."

There were problems for Ford's Mikko Hirvonen. Having chosen tyres that were too soft and opting for a suspension that was too hard, the young Finn battled to get the most from his Focus and completed the test fourteen fastest.

As a repeat of SS1, but run in the opposite direction, the dry test featured a number of slippery, dirty corners. There were no retirements and after the finish, crews made the short journey back to Vic for a scheduled service.

The action now resumes at 11.42 local time with SS12, followed by SS13 at 1235, before crews again return to service at around 1329.

 

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