Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution driver Xavier Pons has driven superbly during Rallye Deutschland to maintain his lead in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship.

The Spaniard briefly relinquished his lead to Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports driver 'Gigi' Galli after stage 13, but was then handed back the advantage when the Italian went off the road in the penultimate stage. In the overall Group N leaderboard, Lancer Evolution drivers hold nine of the top 13 positions.

The second leg has been one of the toughest of the World Championship season and included the longest and most punishing stages of the rally. It was fought out largely on the Baumholder army training area and for much of the day competitors battled atrocious conditions. Torrential storms regularly engulfed the Hunsruck region, testing driving skills and spectators' enthusiasm to the limit. A number of high-speed accidents confirmed how unpredictable the rally had become.

Spaniard Pons has never won the Production Car category in a World Championship rally, but has withstood immense pressure to maintain his lead. A spin when he picked the wrong tyres for the second loop of stages cost him a few seconds and he also had to make minor gearbox repairs himself, but he kept his cool and his lead.

"It has been a very hard day, but a very good day," he said. "I really like this car and I feel at home on tarmac, so it's been a good rally for me. It's nice to be in the lead, but we still have some difficult stages and not much service tomorrow, so I cannot relax."

Italian star Galli had re-taken the lead in his Lancer Evolution and looked on course for maximum points until he crashed after hitting a patch of oil at the same corner as Daniel Carlsson on the last stage in Baumholder.

"I came round a corner and saw Carlsson's co-driver trying to warn us about some oil on the road, but the minute I touched the brakes the car skated off the road," said a disappointed Gigi. "It was totally impossible to do anything."

Finland's Jani Paasonen, fifth in the category, admitted that he was lucky to still be in the rally after a huge spin 300 metres after the scene of his 2003 accident on Baumholder. This time he damaged the back of the car heavily, but the tough Lancer Evolution was still in perfect shape mechanically.

Sandro Wallenwein has pressed on doggedly in his Lancer Evolution VIII MR, demonstrating the car's considerable potential, while Germany's Sebastian Vollak, who is making a good impression in his first season, is seventh of the Production Car World Rally Championship contenders in his Lancer Evolution, beaten only by much more experienced drivers. Fumio Nutahara, who re-started under SupeRally regulations, has seemingly had a trouble-free day.

The final leg of the event includes seven stages and 98.38 competitive kilometres in the Saarland region, on fast, smooth roads that provide a real test of high-speed handling.



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