Conditions were very different from the opening two days as the 39 surviving competitors left Lloret de Mar this morning for the final leg of this penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

The sunshine and blue skies of the first two days were replaced by heavy clouds and rain, and wet weather intermediate tyres were the choice of all drivers for the opening loop of three speed tests close to Vic.

The action began with the 11.55km Sant Bartomeu del Grau, a shortened version of a special stage run yesterday, but in the opposite direction. Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park, lying second overnight in their Castrol-backed Focus RS World Rally Car, increased their advantage over Gilles Panizzi in third by another five seconds. Heavy rain just as the leading cars were starting the following 5.05km La Roca made conditions treacherous, giving an advantage to those who started earlier in better conditions. Martin suffered badly in the wet and was 13th, but the stage was so short that the time loss was kept to a minimum.

The opening loop ended with the classic 35.18km Viladrau test. It is the longest stage of the rally and draws huge crowds to the famous and much photographed hairpin bend below the motorway bridge. The long test did little to help Martin's neck injuries but it was the heavy rain that caused the biggest problems. He was ninth fastest but slipped back to third, 12.6sec behind Panizzi.

"My brake pedal went to the floor at the beginning and end of the stage but the main difficulty was the rain," said the 27-year-old Estonian. "We didn't have enough cuts in the tyres and the package didn't work so well in the wet. It's a shame we've not been able to do more testing in those conditions. It was muddy in places and not much fun. In the wet the G-forces were not so big which helped my neck, but that was the least of my worries. The set up needs to be softer so we'll make changes in service."

Team-mates Francois Duval and St?ehane Prevot retained fifth in their similar Focus RS but the hard-charging Petter Solberg is just 4.0sec behind.

"Our tyres were too hard for the conditions," said 22-year-old Duval. "There was lots of standing water and we aquaplaned many times. It was so slippery and we didn't push 100 per cent. The car is perfect but it'll be hard to stay ahead of Petter in the rain."

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, in a 2002-specification Focus RS, lie 14th despite brake troubles. "I had to use the handbrake on the straight so the brakes worked in the corners," said Hirvonen.



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