Norway's Petter Solberg has ended an astonishing second leg of the Tour de Corse today [Saturday] with a 17.9-second lead over Belgian Francois Duval.

It was drama from the start of today's six stages on this 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Overnight leader Sebastien Loeb slid his Citroen Xsara WRC off the road and dropped ten minutes on the second stage of the day. That test also claimed Ford's Markko Martin, who had only just moved into second place. The Focus driver dropped four minutes changing a smashed wheel on his car.

These early problems left Duval at the head of the field, a position he held until the last stage of the day, where some inspired driving from Solberg carried him to the top of the leaderboard, just two days after he'd crashed his Impreza heavily on the shakedown stage.

Duval is second, but under intense pressure from his former team-mate Carlos Sainz. The Citroen-driving Spaniard is 4.5 seconds behind Duval.

Tomorrow's final leg includes two runs at two stages, for a total of 112km - with further mixed weather conditions.

Both Subaru Impreza WRC 2003s have run without any mechanical troubles today.

Solberg's tyre choice was a little too conservative for the opening loop of stages this morning and he spun on the second test, but as the day wore on, the Norwegian's stage times tumbled as he powered his way into the lead by the end of the day - having started the middle leg of stages in sixth place.

Tommi Makinen spent most of the leg adjusting the damper settings on his car, trying to find the best solution for the ever-changing conditions. He took a tyre too hard for the second loop of two stages this afternoon and couldn't get any heat into them.

Solberg said: "This is amazing. I have been right on the limit all day, but in these conditions trying to get the right tyre is almost impossible. The conditions are changing throughout the stage, all of the time there are places where it would be better to have a small cut here - or not to have had the cut in that place. It's so hard to get it right. The car has been perfect today and I really think we were right with the cut slick tyres we took through that long final stage of the day."

Makinen added: "I don't have so much experience of using these dampers in the wet conditions, so it has taken me a while to get the set-up right. The hard tyres were terrible in SS10 and 11. Not even in the longer stage could we get them to warm up."

At Ford meanwhile the 2003 specification Focus RS WRCs of Martin and Duval ran without any problems, while Mikko Hirvonen also enjoyed a trouble-free day in his 2002 car.

Martin rocketed back into contention for the lead on the first stage this morning. His fastest time took him to within ten seconds of the leader Loeb. Unfortunately for the Estonian, he went off the road two kilometres into the next stage, smashing a front wheel and dropping four minutes.

Duval ensured there remained something to smile about in the Ford camp as he hit the top of the leaderboard after SS8. The Belgian maintained a consistent pace throughout the remaining stages, but came under an increased threat from Solberg as the second leg wore on, eventually dropping to second following the final test of the day.

The highlight of Hirvonen's day was his fastest time on the eighth stage. The Finn made it through the test before the worst of the rain arrived. That first ever fastest time in the FIA World Rally Championship helped Hirvonen towards a top ten position overall at the end of the leg.

Martin said: "I had been adjusting the settings on the car at the start of that stage [SS8]. Once the car was right, I pushed harder. The car slid wide in a left-hand corner and hit the mountain, smashing the right-front wheel. We had to stop and change the wheel, which took ages. Yesterday there was still some hope, but today it's different. We had a chance to win the rally and to help ourselves a lot in the championship, now that has gone."

Duval noted: "I stalled the car three times at the start of the eighth stage, we dropped about 15 seconds. Apart from that, things have gone well. With the weather the way it has been, today has been a really difficult day, so much aquaplaning. We have to be careful, I won't attack yet."

Hirvonen continued: "We had a bit of a scare on the 11th stage today. There was lots of grip on the entry to one corner, but on the exit there wasn't as much. The car slid along the side of the road in fourth gear for a while, but in the end it was okay - quite exciting, though. Setting the fastest time on my first visit to Corsica is amazing - I'm very happy with that."

The Citroen Xsara WRCs ran largely without mechanical fault throughout the second leg, although the windscreen wipers and screen demister stopped working on Colin McRae's car during SS10.

Loeb slid off the road on the second stage this morning, dropping ten minutes while spectators tried to get the Xsara back onto the stage. He dropped from first place to 18th. The Frenchman's misfortune - along with that of Ford driver Markko Martin - elevated his team-mate Sainz into second place.

Sainz was immediately embroiled in a big fight with Subaru's Petter Solberg and Peugeot driver Marcus Gronholm in his attempts to hold on to that position. Sainz dropped behind Solberg on the day's penultimate test after what he described as a difficult day.

McRae struggled for visibility through the wet tenth stage, when the wipers broke and then the screen misted up. That aside, the Scot's day was without major drama.

Philippe Bugalski spent the day fighting with Richard Burns, eventually finishing behind the Briton in ninth place.

"It was about half way though the stage that I had my problem," explained Loeb, "I turned in a little early for a left-hand corner and then got out of shape on the right-hander that followed. The car spun and the front was stuck, we couldn't move it at all. We had to wait for some spectators to come and help us, eventually we got going again - but we had dropped ten minutes. The roads were so difficult to drive on, so slippery. Okay, we have done some good times since then, but that doesn't really matter now. I don't know what this means for the championship, we have to wait until the finish to find that out."

Sainz continued: "Today has been such a hard day. The tyre choice has been really hard to make, the weather has been changing all of the time. It's a compromise between the stages, what could be good for one is wrong for another. All we can do is our best, and we have been pushing throughout the day."

McRae added: "We've had a bit of an up and down day - but certainly not an easy day. On the first run at the long stage I would have preferred more of a cut in the tyre, but there wasn't time to do that in service. That would certainly have made a good difference for us in the stage."

At Peugeot all three 206 WRCs have ran without mechanical fault.

Gronholm struggled through a day which he wasn't enjoying very much. The Finn slid off the road near the start of SS11, his harder compound Michelins not finding any grip at all on the shiny Corsican asphalt. He had run as high as third overall, but his off-road excursion on this afternoon dropped him back down the leaderboard.

Gilles Panizzi, however, was heading in the opposite direction. The Frenchman was in a completely different frame of mind today. He'd found a car set-up which was working for him in the mixed conditions, and a fastest time on the first run at the long stage moved him right back into contention.

Richard Burns took an intermediate tyre on the first loop of stages this morning and dropped a lot of time when the first test of the day proved to be drier than expected. He then spun at a hairpin dropping ten seconds on the ninth stage.

Gronholm said: "It's horrible today. I felt I was too slow everywhere this morning, the conditions are so unpredictable. I don't think anybody is enjoying this rally with these conditions. When we went off this afternoon, the car was all over the place."

Panizzi noted: "The car has been better today. I really feel I can drive it like this and really push. Pretty much everything has been changed on the car, but the team don't know what was the problem yesterday. For me the rally started today."

Burns commented: "I've been pretty pleased with the way the car has worked today, but when the weather changes the way it has today, it's really difficult to get things right - and exceptionally difficult to get the right tyres, we should know - we got it wrong on the first loop this morning. On the second run at stages ten and 11, I took a slick tyre which was losing its heat as soon as we hit any damp patches. It didn't rain, but there was enough dirt on the road to make an intermediate the better tyre."

Over at Skoda Toni Gardemeister's Fabia WRC suffered a broken anti-roll bar this morning and problems with the steering sensor throughout the leg. Didier Auriol's car retired yesterday with electrical problems.

Gardemeister moved up two places through today's six stages, ending the leg in 11th place. The Finn had no major complaints about the car, the team deciding to disconnect the steering sensor as it was starting to affect the performance of the car's differentials.

"In the rain today the team had softened the anti-roll bars and got the car working well," said the Finn, "I was enjoying driving it, everything felt good, but then in the mud it was so hard - the car was sliding like hell in places, no grip at all. The last stage was really muddy, we needed to have taken a harder tyre for that stage."

Of the other entries despite a brace of spins, Daniel Sola maintained his grip on the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship. The Spaniard had struggled with tyre choice on a couple of tests and admitted he hadn't really enjoyed the day in his Mitsubishi Lancer E8.

He remained comfortably ahead of Niall McShea's Lancer E6. The Ulsterman was struggling with tyres, having run a wet tyre when he felt an intermediate would have worked better.

Subaru drivers Toshi Arai and Martin Rowe are third and fourth, with the title heading to the Briton if the scores remain the same.

Of the non-official entries, Cedric Robert leads the charge in 13th place, despite turbo problems aboard his Peugeot 206 WRC.

Rally statistics - Leg 2:

Starters: 55 crews (28 Group A and 27 Group N) started this morning.

Top retirements: Bengue (F), Stohl (A), Rousselot (F), Ginley (GB), Frisiero (I), Richard (CDN).

Today - Saturday 18 October: Leg 2 started from Ajaccio at 07h15 and covered 447.80km, including 190.00km on six stages.

Tomorrow - Sunday 19 October: Leg 3 starts from Ajaccio at 07h00 and covers 240.92km, including 112.10km on four stages. The first car is expected to arrive at the finish in Ajaccio at 14h30.

Weather forecast: Further rain expected overnight and into tomorrow morning.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 2:

SS7 Ampaza-Petreto 1 (38.64kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 25m 32.2
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 25m 36.6
3. Loeb (F) Citroen 25m 41.1

Leaders after SS7:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 27m 05.8
2. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 27m 15.4
3. Duval (B) Ford 1h 27m 16.2

SS8 Pont de le Masine-Col St Georges 1 (15.42kms):
1. Hirvonen (FIN) Ford 10m 31.5
2. Bugalski (F) Citroen 10m 40.0
3. Gardemeister (FIN) Skoda 10m 40.7

Leaders after SS8:
1. Duval (B) Ford 1h 38m 17.7
2. Sainz (F) Citroen 1h 38m 28.3
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 38m 33.0

SS9 Col de Carazzi-Bastelica 1 (40.94kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 27m 23.5
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 27m 25.3
3. Duval (B) Ford 27m 30.9

Leaders after SS9:
1. Duval (B) Ford 2h 05m 48.6
2. Sainz (F) Citroen 2h 06m 00.2
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 06m 15.0

SS10 Ampaza-Petreto 2 (38.64kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 25m 20.7
2. Martin (EE) Ford 25m 33.6
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 25m 34.1

Leaders after SS10:
1. Duval (B) Ford 2h 31m 29.2
2. Sainz (F) Citroen 2h 31m 34.3
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 2h 31m 35.7

SS11 Pont de la Masine-Col St Georges 2 (15.42kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 10m 22.3
2. Martin (EE) Ford 10m 25.5
3. Duval (B) Ford 10m 25.6

Leaders after SS11:
1. Duval (B) Ford 2h 41m 54.8
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 2h 41m 58.0
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 2h 42m 02.6

SS12 Col de Carazzi-Bastelica 2 (40.94kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 27m 15.6
2. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 27m 24.8
3. Martin (EE) Ford 27m 33.2

Leaders after SS12 / Leg 2:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 3h 91m 13.6
2. Duval (B) Ford +17.9
3. Sainz (E) Citroen +22.4
4. McRae (GB) Citroen +1m 15.5
5. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot +1m 23.6
6. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +1m 26.5
7. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +2m 10.3
8. Burns (GB) Peugeot +2m 22.0
9. Bugalski (F) Citroen +2m 32.9
10. Hirvonen (FIN) Ford +2m 33.9



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