Midday report from leg2

Midday report from leg2From General Article [ 06/09/2003 ].
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Rally Australia leg2 consists of two loops of 4 stages and nearly 60km of competition each around the Helena complex before the day is seen off with two runs over the short Perth City spectator super special stage. So after 4 longer stages, we are halfway through the day and the rally. It is surprising that of the top crews nobody had any serious trouble so far today, despite there being a number of hot fights going on. Some of the battles are quite likely the closest we have seen all season, as you can find out below. However Toshi Arai retired his group N Subaru with mechanical problems on the last stage before service, which effectively means the title decission in the PWRC will be postponed until Corsica.

The hottest battle has to be that of Petter Solberg and Sébastien Loeb. Loeb is easily the surprise of the rally. It is only his 2nd start to this extremely specialised event. As well Citroen is thought to be lacking behind its opposition in experience in this rally, especially considering the testing ban outside Europe. Loeb started the day with a 3.9s lead over Petter Solberg, following Marcus Grönholm’s unlucky off road retirement from the lead yesterday. It could have been expected that Petter Solberg would be closing the gap on Sébastien Loeb this morning. And Solberg did exactly that: after SS12, the second stage of the day the pair was exactly tied for the lead – a first for this season! But in the following two stages Loeb re-opened a lead of no more than 2.1s, helped slightly by a half spin on Solberg’s side.

So at mid day service back in Jarrahdale Petter Solberg, who was impressed but not surprised by Sébastien Loeb’s speed, claimed: “We had too much sideways on some stages". His navigator Phil Mills confirmed that they had a half spin and they have to continue to put pressure on Loeb. Interestingly Petter Solberg felt that the stages had been rough, which is uncharacteristic for Australia. They will be even rougher now on the 2nd run. Solberg claimed that he will continue at this pace now and save trying something new for tomorrow.

Richard Burns behind in 3rd feels a bit isolated. The gap to the leaders increased as well as that to his hunters. For Burns this is however not an exactly inconvenient scenario. In championship terms the points system this year has so small gaps that it is hardly worth for him taking the risks of fighting for better. Especially since his closest championship rivals Marcus Grönholm has retired and Carlos Sainz is down in 6th and under pressure. Burns as well had a puncture in the first stage of the day.

Behind him are more fascinating battles. Tommi Mäkinen is in 4th, but Ford’s Markko Märtin behind him closed the gap to only 3.6s. Mäkinen needs his gearbox changed at service. And in 6th we have Carlos Sainz, who is getting under increasing pressure from his Citroen team mate Colin Mc Rae. Their gap has reduced from an overnight 12.4s to now only 4.2s. To spice things up, this event could be decisive for Sainz and Mc Rae, who will keep a drive with Citroen next year.

As you can see, the next loop of stages should be very exciting indeed. The loop kicks off with a new stage for today, Beraking West, before we revisit the 3 Helena stages, that have been run this morning.