The Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart crew of François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup have shown the potential of the Lancer Evolution WRC2 today, a second-fastest stage time underlining the progress of development work on the second generation world rally car. The all-French crew have powered up the leaderboard, moving from an overnight 14th to seventh, before being overhauled in the final stage by just 1.4 seconds. Overnight in Trier, they hold eighth and fifth in the Manufacturers' Championship.
Seventy of the original 86 contenders started the second leg of Rallye Deutschland this morning, the crews heading east towards the military land around Baumholder for eight stages and 164.44 competitive kilometres. It was the longest leg of the event, contested over wide, broken and uneven roads and always promised fast and furious action. Heavy rain greeted the crews this morning, turning already fearsome kerb-lined tracks into treacherously slippery stages. By lunchtime however, tyre choice became the main talking point as many of the crews appeared to misjudge the state of the roads and the speed at which they were drying.
François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup picked up the pace this morning, the wider stages suiting the Lancer Evolution WRC2, and while they also benefited from retirements ahead of them, they climbed from 14th to ninth within three stages. "As I said yesterday, the roads suited the car much better and I also like driving in the rain," commented François. "The car works well when there's a constant surface, although it was damp rather than wet for about 20 kilometres of the second stage and our set-up didn't work quite so well. The Michelins were also working fantastically in those stages."
The French pair then powered the Lancer Evolution WRC2 to second fastest through stage 13 and this, along with a string of top times, saw them rocket up the leaderboard to seventh overall. In the final stage however, the pair were overhauled by Markko Martin after a day-long battle.
"Everything was working absolutely perfectly in stage 13," said a delighted François. "The grip from the Michelins was incredible, the brakes were consistent and gave me real confidence to go late and hard with absolutely no problem. I had complete confidence in the car, it was fantastic. In stage 11 I was a bit too careful because there was a lot of mud, but then on the following one, where it was about fifty percent dirty, I drove flat-out and the grip was absolutely fantastic from the new tyres Michelin has developed specifically for this leg.
"We made some set-up changes today and the car is much more to my liking," he added. "We have actually gone back to the settings we found on one of the development tests in France and you can see the difference it's made. We should have tried it sooner. Tomorrow the character of the roads is different again. It's narrow in places but the nature is much more flowing and you can get a good rhythm going. Our aim is to re-take Markko (Martin), but also try to get into sixth position and score a point for ourselves."
Adding to François' comments, Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart team manager Derek Dauncey said: "We are really pleased with the times François has been setting, especially his second and fifth fastest stage times. He clearly has a better feeling and more confidence in the car. The goal in this event was to be setting top six times and so far we have achieved that, which is very rewarding for the whole team."
The second leg has been a dramatic one, wet conditions this morning adding to the retirement of no fewer than six of the leading crews. Hyundai's squad has been wiped out, Freddy Loix retiring 500 metres from parc ferme this morning with no oil pressure and Armin Schwarz out when he went off the road and rolled. Achim Mortl retired his Subaru after aquaplaning off the road into a tree and team-mate Petter Solberg followed when he took a wheel off after hitting a rock. Philippe Bugalski also retired the second of three Citroens, the Frenchman out when an oil pipe was ripped off after an accident and he lost all the fluid. And Toni Gardemeister joined the increasing list of casualties this afternoon, the Finn rolling his Skoda in stage 14. In the fight for honours, young Frenchman Sebastien Loeb has held onto his lead, although the Citroen driver dropped time in stage 12 when he hit a rock and damaged the steering. He reduced the gap again in stage 16 when he overshot a junction and was forced to reverse back onto the stage, leaving the overnight deficit at just 10.1 seconds. Richard Burns is hot on his heels, the Briton eyeing his first victory for Peugeot, and he has a comfortable lead over team-mate Marcus Gronholm, in third position. Colin McRae (Ford) retains his overnight fourth position, the Scot, like many other crews, finding himself not on the optimum tyres early this morning. Team-mate Carlos Sainz has climbed to fifth, the Spaniard echoing comments about tyre dilemmas. Bruno Thiry holds a fine sixth overall in a privately-entered Peugeot 206WRC and the sole remaining Subaru, piloted by Tommi Makinen, is ninth.
The final leg of Rallye Deutschland starts on Sunday at 06:30 hrs and takes the remaining contenders to the southeast of Trier for six special stages and 102.93 competitive kilometres. The action is centred around the picturesque city of St. Wendel, near the tranquil Bostalsee-lake, where the service park is located.