Colin McRae and Nicky Grist produced a blistering display during today's second leg of the Swedish International Rally to keep their Ford Focus World Rally Car in the midst of a terrific battle for the top placings. The Ford Martini pairing...
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist produced a blistering display during today's second leg of the Swedish International Rally to keep their Ford Focus World Rally Car in the midst of a terrific battle for the top placings. The Ford Martini pairing stormed to fastest time on two of the day's six speed tests to return to Karlstad in third overall. Team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were forced to retire the other Focus when in a comfortable top six position.
After restarting in fourth place, McRae quickly reeled in Thomas Rådström and Tommi Mäkinen to claim second. The 31-year-old Scot then set about chasing leader Marcus Grönholm and after four of today's special stages he had slashed the deficit to the Finn to under 20 seconds.
Such was the pace of McRae that on the feared Jutbo test, at more than 47km the longest and toughest of the four-day event, he shattered the stage record by 65 seconds. McRae's day was marred only by a high speed spin on the penultimate stage which dropped him behind Mäkinen and has effectively cost him any chance of catching Grönholm. The gap between McRae and Mäkinen is just 3.1 seconds with Rådström just 6.8 seconds behind.
Conditions throughout the 153km of stages were again remarkable. With no snow on the surface of the roads and forest tracks which made up the day's action, drivers had to contend with 75 per cent ice and 25 per cent gravel. Temperatures several degrees above freezing ensured a thin film of water covered the ice and Grist said the loose gravel was even muddy in parts.
"I think we've got a big battle ahead of us tomorrow," said McRae. "We were steadily pulling time back on Marcus which was important because it kept the pressure on him and he's not used to this situation. Our spin dropped us back a bit but we have plenty to drive hard for during tomorrow's stages.
"The spin happened at a fourth gear left-hand bend. The car slid sideways and spun and then we hit the bank. The impact knocked the car right round again, so we were facing the right direction. We'd lost all our momentum by then so I had to select first gear and start again. It's frustrating but the main thing is we're still here and the Focus has not missed a beat today," he added.
Sainz and Moya consolidated their overnight sixth position on this morning's opening stage and the team fitted a new differential after the test, the replacement fitted with different settings to aid stability. However midway between the service park and the start of the following test, the Focus stopped. The oil pump drive system had sheared and Sainz retired.
"It's disappointing but these things happen," said Sainz. "What matters now is that Colin has a clear run to the end and scores well. It was difficult for me this morning, especially on the long, fast corners, to feel confident. We softened the suspension to make the car more stable but weren't able to try it."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a day in which McRae's Focus has run faultlessly. "I'm delighted with the way that Colin put himself into a situation to eat away at Marcus' lead. It's unfortunate he spun but he's still in a good position for the final day tomorrow. It's unrealistic to hope to beat Marcus but there's still an excellent battle between Tommi, Colin and Thomas.
"We won't know the exact reason for Carlos' problem until Cosworth Racing examines the engine in full but we do know it can be resolved before the Safari Rally in Kenya. Petter Solberg is testing there for us now and he's completed 300km at full rally speed today without any difficulties which is encouraging news," added Wilson.
News from our Rivals
Despite coming under intense pressure from McRae, Grönholm (Peugeot) set fastest time on three stages and starts the final leg with a 26.5 seconds lead over Mäkinen (Mitsubishi). The reigning world champion had a major escape on the long Jutbo test, twice sliding off the road and breaking three wheel rims. Amazingly, he was still second fastest. Team-mate Freddy Loix climbed onto the leaderboard but was unhappy with his car's transmission all day. Subaru duo Richard Burns and Juha Kankkunen complete the top six, Burns on the fringe of the fight for podium positions, while Kankkunen lost time with a shock absorber problem and a poor tyre choice. Francois Delecour (Peugeot) has been untroubled, the Frenchman's only concern being his lack of knowledge of an event he has not tackled since 1996. Didier Auriol (Seat) found that changes to the car's set-up improved his mood but he has struggled with tyres that have not properly come to terms with the unusual conditions. Team-mate Toni Gardemeister was the only other major retirement of the leg, the young Finn stopping in stage 11 with no oil pressure. Kenneth Eriksson (Hyundai) had a gearbox change this morning but more problems meant he tackled the last three stages without fifth gear. He is 13th and team-mate Alister McRae is 14th.
The final leg is the shortest of all, just five stages covering 96km awaiting competitors. After leaving Karlstad at 07.20, the day's action is based around the town of Hagfors, with two of the stages repeat runs of first leg tests. The rally returns to Karlstad for the finish at 16.04.
Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 31min 08.0sec 2. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 31min34.5sec 3. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 2hr 31min 37.6sec 4. T Rådström/T Thörner S Toyota Corolla 231min 44.4sec 5. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 2hr 31min 50.9sec 6. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 2hr 33min 17.2sec 7. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 2hr 33min 38.4sec 8. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Seat Cordoba 2hr 35min 11.8sec 9. M Martin/M Park EE Toyota Corolla 2hr 35min 18.5sec 10 F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 2hr 35min 19.7sec