Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb remains in control of Rallye Catalunya at the end of leg two of the penultimate round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship.

The Frenchman suffered brake problems aboard his Xsara through the final loop of three stages, on a day which once again featured bright and sunny weather on the roads around Vic, north of the rally's base in Lloret de Mar.

Those brake troubles, combined with a big push from Ford's Markko Martin, meant his advantage at the head of the field was reduced from a 26.2 seconds at the end of leg one to 20.8 seconds at the end of today's eight stages.

Martin has spent the day in the thick of an almighty fight with Gilles Panizzi. Last year's winner made it into second position after the day's fourth test - but relinquished the runners-up spot on the very next stage. Fastest times on two of the final three of today's stages was enough for the Estonian to ease his way clear of the Peugeot, ensuring he starts the final day with a 15.9-second advantage over Panizzi.

Today has been a difficult one for local hero Carlos Sainz. He altered the suspension set-up of his Xsara at first service this morning and struggled to match the times of the leading bunch through the day's first three stages. He dropped back to fourth position and spent the day trying to regain the confidence he'd lost in the car.

Colin McRae's Xsara WRC was hit by brake problems this morning, but the remainder of the Citroen pack ran without technical fault.

Loeb maintained his status as rally leader throughout the second leg, but the Frenchman admitted he was still pushing as hard as he dared, without taking too many big risks, to keep the gap stable between himself and the Martin/Panizzi fight for second place.

"Markko and Gilles are pushing really hard - they have the big fight - when they are going so hard they are setting good times," said Loeb, "I'm having to work very hard to keep my lead. The stages today have been okay; the first one this morning [Olost] was really fast."

The second leg wasn't quite such a success for Loeb's team-mate and overnight runner up, Carlos Sainz. Sainz had taken different suspension settings for the first loop of three stages this morning, and instantly regretted his decision. The alterations had made the usually rock-solid Xsara nervous and harder to drive. Sainz slipped back to fourth on the first run through Olost - and remained there for the rest of the day.

Sainz noted: "Taking the wrong suspension this morning was not good, it cost me a little confidence in the car I had some moments this morning trying to keep the pace in the car, it wasn't so nice. I have spent the rest of the day trying to get the confidence back. Swapping the suspension back to how it was yesterday was better."

Once the team had fitted new discs and pads to McRae's Citroen following SS11, the Scot was able to push harder and posted fifth quickest through the second run at Sant Julia, cementing his seventh and closing slightly on Burns' sixth position.

"The brakes were starting to go after about five kilometres [this morning]," explained McRae. "It was bad, because I was having to touch the brakes before I braked properly, just to make sure they were there and working. That does take some of your confidence in the car. After that it was good, we were able to be back on the pace, which I'm happy with."

Philippe Bugalski spent most of the morning chasing McRae, but as Marcus Gronholm finally dialled himself into his Peugeot, the Frenchman's attack turned to defence. He surrendered eighth to the 206 driver on SS12.

Bugalksi said: "I have a much better feeling with the car today. We've been able to go harder, it's just a shame that Marcus has come past."

At Ford Markko Martin's Focus ran reliably, while Francois Duval's Ford was hit by brake problems on the middle loop of today's stages. Mikko Hirvonen's 2002 also suffered brake trouble in the first loop of three stages this morning.

Given the problems he is having with his neck, Martin's pace was once again impressive throughout the second leg of stages. The Estonian was having ice packed around the swollen muscles at each service point to try and ease the discomfort. Despite those problems, he still managed to edge out Peugeot's Panizzi in a fight for second place.

Once again Duval's times improved on the second run at today's stages, the Belgian held fifth place at the end of the second leg - just a handful of seconds behind Sainz. Following his brake problems earlier in the day, the team decided to change the pedal box at the lunchtime service. Unfortunately this took slightly longer than anticipated and Duval was hit with a ten-second penalty ahead of the final three stages of the day.

Mikko Hirvonen's brake trouble came earlier in the day - on the opening loop - after those, however he ran well through the five stages which remained gaining more valuable experience of the Catalan roads.

Martin said: "I preferred the shorter stages today - I didn't get so tired in those. The last stage today wasn't so good. When I was pulling my crash helmet on in the car, I must have knocked the roof vent closed, which meant I didn't get any air into the car. I felt really tired after the first two kilometres."

Duval added: "I had a bit of a problem with a front tyre on the first stage this morning. I remember hitting something, but I don't think it was a puncture - maybe the mousse was damaged in the tyre. The vibration was terrible, so bad it damaged the steering."

Hirvonen continued: "Today has been more good miles for me. I don't think the roads have been so bad, okay in some places there have been rocks and things, but nothing we didn't expect - I'm enjoying the rally."

All three Peugeot's have run without any mechanical problems through leg two.

Peugeot's Panizzi ended the day in third place, but admitted he'd struggled to get to grips with the conditions through the last loop of three stages. The Frenchman enjoyed a brief stay in second position, holding the place by just one tenth of a second after SS12. Unfortunately for Panizzi, Martin hit back on the second run at the short Taradell stage to re-take the position by half a second. For the remaining three stages, Martin took more time out of Panizzi to open a 15.9-second gap at the close of play.

Richard Burns' Peugeot was suffering excessive oversteer through the third stage of the day, but that was about the Englishman's only trouble on the second leg. He remained in the sixth position which he'd held at the end of last night.

Marcus Gronholm finally found a set-up he was happy with ahead of the middle loop of stages today. The team changed the suspension geometry and the differential mapping on his car. He moved up two places through the day to eighth overall and looked set to battle with McRae for a possible seventh on the final leg.

Burns said: "Today has been okay. I'm quite happy, although I would be happier if we hadn't lost the time yesterday and we could have been fighting further up the leaderboard. The middle stage in that last loop was a bit messy, though - the cuts had pulled a lot of rocks and dirt out onto the road."

Gronholm noted: "Finally we have the car we wanted. After the first loop this morning we changed the caster and camber on the car. That with some diff map changes made such a difference. Unfortunately it's too late for this all now. I don't know if we can catch Colin, but we'll give it a go."

Panizzi concluded: "I've found it quite difficult to keep up with Markko on the faster stages, the Ford's engine seems to be quite strong. I think there's still a little more to come from me, but I wasn't so comfortable through that final loop today. There's always tomorrow and we're in a better position than we were at the start of the event."

Over at Subaru the Impreza WRC 2003 of Petter Solberg ran without any mechanical problems, while the sister car of his team-mate Tommi Makinen suffered throttle problems on the middle loop of stages and then he thought the transmission might have been damaged after spending so long on the rev limiter in the ultra-fast Olost stage.

Solberg moved past Makinen to spearhead the Subaru attack through leg two, although both were struggling to match the pace of their rivals - all of whom were running on Michelin, rather than Pirelli tyres. The Tour of Corsica winner remained upbeat about his chances for the final leg, continuing to hope for rain - which suits Pirelli's asphalt tyres more, but accepting that from a position over two-and-a-half minutes down on the leader, there wasn't too much he could do about the situation.

Makinen felt the set-up he'd taken through the final three stages of the day had compromised his performance; running at 60 per cent throttle for the most part of stages 12 and 13 also cost him time.

Solberg said: "It was supposed to rain today. That would have been nice, hopefully it will come tonight. In the middle loop of stages we used a new tyre, one which was a compound harder than we'd gone on before - it worked well, our times were competitive."

Makinen added: "Driving with the throttle problem was not good for us, neither was the suspension settings on the final loop. The car had too much grip at the rear, we overheated the front tyres much too early. Not good. Tomorrow it will be a good idea to go back to the old set-up."

At Skoda Didier Auriol's Fabia WRC retired with clutch failure three kilometres into the first stage this morning. Toni Gardemeister's car ran without any major technical problems.

Auriol's troubled rally deteriorated further not far after the start of the Olost test. The clutch on his Fabia had been slipping from the start of the stage, it wasn't long before it stopped the car in its tracks. Following the turbo-related problems he'd suffered on his Fabia through leg one, this wasn't the exact result which Auriol had been looking for from his 150th round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Reverting his car to an almost Corsican set-up continued to give Gardemeister confidence for the second leg. While the Finn was able to push harder, he still felt the front of the car was too soft.

Auriol said: "This is a very disappointing end to the event for us. With the problems yesterday and now this morning, we haven't really had the chance to show just what the car could do. Okay, we need more power, we know that - but the car is handling very well."

Gardemeister added: "The times have improved very well with the change of set-up. We had to stiffen the front again this morning, to take out some of the initial body roll on turn-in. Apart from that I'm happier than I was yesterday. On some of the stages we are getting close to Tommi which means things are getting better."

Of the other entries Brice Tirabassi continues to head the FIA Junior World Rally Championship field in his Renault Clio. The Frenchman's only problem has been deciding whether or not to cut the corners and risk getting a puncture. Kris Meeke remains second in the category after a similarly problem-free day in his Opel Corsa.

Rally statistics - Leg 2:

Starters: 45 crews (41 Group A and 4 Group N) started this morning.

Retirements: Auriol (F), Iliev (BG), Broccoli (RSM).

Today - Saturday 25 October: Leg 2 started from Lloret de Mar at 07h00 and covered 429.69km, including 131.26km on eight stages.

Tomorrow - Sunday 26 October: Leg 3 starts from Lloret de Mar at 05h30 and covers 409.76km, including 103.56km on six stages. The first car is expected to arrive at the finish in Lloret de Mar at 15h09.

Weather forecast: Rain expected overnight, continuing sporadically throughout tomorrow.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 2:

SS9 Olost 1 (23.08kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 11m 39.4
2. Martin (EE) Ford 11m 39.9
3. Loeb (F) Citroen 11m 41.7

Leaders after SS9:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 43m 19.5
2. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 43m 48.9
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 1h 43m 50.7

SS10 Lluca 1 (14.04kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 8m 15.9
2. Duval (B) Ford 8m 16.1
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 8m 18.5

Leaders after SS10:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 51m 38.6
2. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 52m 04.8
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 1h 52m 09.5

SS11 Saint Boi de Llucanes 1 (12.85kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 8m 06.7
2. Martin (EE) Ford 8m 07.2
3. Loeb (F) Citroen 8m 07.2

Leaders after SS11:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 59m 45.8
2. Martin (EE) Ford 2h 00m 12.0
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2h 00m 16.2

SS12 Saint Julia 2 (26.27kms):
1. Duval (B) Ford 15m 30.4
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 15m 31.1
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 15m 31.4

Leaders after SS12:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 15m 19.0
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2h 15m 28.3
3. Martin (EE) Ford 2h 15m 28.4

SS13 Taradell 2 (5.05kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 2m 58.3
2. Martin (EE) Ford 2m 58.4
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 2m 58.8

Leaders after SS13:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 18m 18.1
2. Martin (EE) Ford 2h 18m 45.8
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2h 18m 46.3

SS14 Olost 2 (23.08kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 11m 37.0
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 11m 40.4
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 11m 41.9

Leaders after SS14:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 29m 58.5
2. Martin (EE) Ford 2h 30m 22.8
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2h 30m 29.5

SS15 Lluca 2 (14.04kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 8m 19.5
2. Duval (B) Ford 8m 21.7
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 8m 23.4

Leaders after SS15:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 38m 23.1
2. Martin (EE) Ford 2h 38m 42.3
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2h 38m 57.9

SS16 Saint Boi de Llucanes 2 (12.85kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 8m 05.5
2. Martin (EE) Ford 8m 07.1
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 8m 07.4

Leaders after SS16 / Leg 2:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 2h 46m 28.6
2. Martin (EE) Ford +20.8
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +36.7
4. Sainz (E) Citroen +1m 05.2
5. Duval (B) Ford +1m 08.8
6. Burns (GB) Peugeot +1m 40.4
7. McRae (GB) Citroen +2m 12.2
8. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot +2m 16.8
9. Bugalski (F) Citroen +2m 39.1
10. Solberg (N) Subaru +2m 39.8



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