MÃ¤rtin leads in Greece as Ford dominates opening day Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park led the gruelling Acropolis Rally in their Focus RS World Rally Car after today's sun-baked opening leg through the rocky mountain...
Märtin leads in Greece as Ford dominates opening day
Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park led the gruelling Acropolis Rally in their Focus RS World Rally Car after today's sun-baked opening leg through the rocky mountain roads of central Greece. The Focus RS dominated the roughest and toughest event in the 14-round FIA World Rally Championship from the very start, team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot leading Märtin initially as Ford held a one-two.
Märtin moved ahead of his team-mate on the second of the eight speed tests, covering 145.74km, and remained in front for the rest of the day. He will restart tomorrow morning with a 4.8sec lead over Harri Rovanperä. Duval retained second as the Focus cars began to stretch their advantage over their pursuers until he retired midway through the day after sliding into a ditch.
After a cool morning, temperatures rose quickly to leave the 82 starters facing typical Acropolis conditions. Large rocks on the gravel tracks and solid bed rock jutting through the road surface posed a tough test for cars, while high cockpit temperatures tested the drivers' fitness and stamina to the full.
Märtin and Park, who dominated the first day of this rally in 2002, claimed fastest time on the second stage and maintained their lead despite a bizarre incident on the fifth test, at 34.68km the longest of the rally. They were on course for fastest time after a superb drive through the opening section of the stage. "But then we went into a dip in the road and as we came out of the compression the bonnet flew open, cracking the windscreen and breaking the roof ventilation system," said Märtin. "I could see no more than 40 metres ahead and the cockpit became incredibly hot because there was no air coming in.
"I had to turn the car where I thought the corners were. There was no forward planning for the road ahead and no opportunity to think about taking the right lines. I simply had to react to what I saw at the last minute and I was like a blind man trying to drive a car. Luckily we managed reasonably well and I didn't even think about stopping to try to close it." Incredibly, Märtin was still fourth fastest.
"It's good to be leading, although it's a shame my advantage is only five seconds and not 50! But after an exciting day, I'm happy with what I have. It will be another tough day tomorrow and I'll have to drive flat out all the way. In the twisty sections we still have some potential that we haven't used yet. It's a great car, really fast and strong, so I can't wait for tomorrow. But now I need a rest. I'm quite tired and it was like being in a sauna on the long stage this afternoon with no ventilation," added Märtin.
Duval made the perfect start, posting fastest time in the opening stage despite a spin. "We lost about 15 seconds when I missed a junction about 3km from the end," he said. "I had to reverse and it was all a little frustrating. The 22-year-old Belgian, given a free hand by team director Malcolm Wilson to attack as hard as he wished, settled into second behind Märtin. He was only 1.4sec adrift of his team-mate when his rally ended 8km from the end of the long fifth stage.
Duval went off the road on a fast left-hand corner and the car became wedged on the edge of a deep ditch. Although undamaged, he was unable to regain the track. "I forgot the pace note and although Stéphane tried to correct me, I braked too late and we slid off," he said. "Obviously I'm disappointed because it was going so well. I know the stages here a little better than elsewhere and I suppose it could have been possible to win."
Hirvonen and Lehtinen started well, the Finns adopting a safety first policy of driving around any big rocks they encountered in the road to avoid problems. They climbed to 10th until they were sidelined just before the midpoint of the sixth stage, a repeat of the day's opening test. "During the stage the car developed a vibration and after about 10km the brakes started to fade," said Hirvonen. "Then the studs on the rear left wheel broke and we had no option but to pull over and retire. I had a good feeling with the car and it was disappointing to have to stop."
Fellow countryman Jari-Matti Latvala and Welsh co-driver Carl Williamson enjoyed a superb day on only their second world rally. Eighteen-year-old Latvala, who is still at school in his native Finland, left his study books behind to compete in what he described as 'the roughest rally I have driven.' With the need to finish and gain as much experience as possible the primary target, he drove calmly to end the day in 12th in his M-Sport run Focus RS, having posted ninth fastest time on the fourth stage.
"It was quite slippery this morning when it was wet and muddy in places. I've learned a lot and we will keep learning tomorrow. I've been driving at 80 percent and I'll maintain that pace tomorrow. There have been a lot of big stones in the road today and I've been very careful to avoid those," said Latvala.
News from our Rivals
Behind Märtin, Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) recovered from a poor tyre choice this morning to lie second. Petter Solberg (Subaru) twice stalled his engine but posted one fastest time to hold third ahead of an untroubled Carlos Sainz (Citroen) and Tommi Mäkinen (Subaru). Colin McRae (Citroen) incurred a 50 second penalty when his engine refused to start at the beginning of stage two and the Scot dropped more time after stalling in stage five, but he recovered well to hold seventh. Championship leader Richard Burns (Peugeot) had a poor day. Hampered by running first car through the stages on roads covered in loose, slippery gravel, the Briton dropped further time when his car's air-conditioning system misted the windscreen this morning and then he lost third gear on the middle group of stages. He is ninth. As always in Greece, the rough roads took a heavy toll. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) retired in the opening stage with engine failure and Armin Schwarz (Hyundai) stopped in the same test with a broken cam belt. Team-mate Freddy Loix retired after the second stage with broken front left suspension, after stopping on the first test to put out a fire. Toni Gardemeister (Skoda) retired on the liaison section after stage five with turbo failure and Juuso Pykalisto (Peugeot) rolled out two stages earlier. But the most dramatic retirement was world champion Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot), whose car stopped 6km before the final service park with no fuel pressure. He was third at the time.
The second leg covers similar territory close to the rally base at Lamia, although the route takes drivers further south for tests close to the coastal town of Itea. It is a long day with the action starting at 06.00 and ending back in Lamia at 19.55 after eight more stages covering 148.71km. The day finishes with the short super special stage at Lilea - Parnassos which was cancelled tonight due to safety reasons.