MÃ¤rtin builds strong lead for Ford in Greek heat. Ford Rallye Sport drivers Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park lead the Acropolis Rally after dominating today's sun-baked opening leg in central Greece. The team's junior pairing powered their...
Märtin builds strong lead for Ford in Greek heat.
Ford Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park lead the Acropolis Rally after dominating today's sun-baked opening leg in central Greece. The team's junior pairing powered their Focus RS World Rally Car to the head of the standings on the opening speed test and were never headed as they built a 50.7sec advantage to lead overnight for the first time in their careers.
Ford are in a dominant position on this seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Colin McRae and Nicky Grist lie third in a similar Focus RS and Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya are fifth after six special stages covering 136.35km over dusty gravel mountain tracks north of Itea, in temperatures topping 35*C.
The traditionally rough roads, which earned this rally its reputation as the toughest in Europe, have been less rocky than usual and experts claim this could be the smoothest Acropolis in its 49-year history. However, loose gravel on the surface meant the first drivers to tackle the stages were at a distinct disadvantage as they swept the debris clear to the benefit of those lower down the running order.
Estonian driver Märtin undoubtedly enjoyed that advantage but his pace was just as fast on the final stage of the day, being run for the second time and therefore offering gravel-free roads for all. He won three stages and his time advantage looked even more impressive given that the next nine cars were covered by less than 40 seconds.
"This has been my best day ever in the world championship," said Märtin. "I'm surprised we have such a big lead but the Focus has been perfect all day. It was so easy to drive it's like playing a computer game and my road position has also helped. I hope we can maintain the same pace in the second leg because it would be great to be in the same position this time tomorrow."
McRae climbed rapidly up the order on the final two stages after the early part of his day was spoiled by a series of minor incidents. He was held up by another competitor's dust on the opening test, endured overheating brakes on the next before overshooting a junction on stage three and then stalling his Focus' engine.
None were seriously time consuming and the 33-year-old Scot quickly regained the lost seconds by posting second fastest time on each of the final two stages to climb from sixth to third. "We didn't have a clean run this morning but we put that behind us this afternoon and now we're in a good position," said McRae, who burned his arm on a wheel key while changing a tyre this afternoon.
"Markko has a good lead but this is a rally where potentially there can be problems at any time so we'll push as hard as we can tomorrow. With the top 15 cars reversed for the second leg we'll have clean roads and that'll help," he added.
Sainz suffered more than most by running third on the road. Loose gravel left the 40-year-old Spaniard struggling for grip and he spent much of the day at the bottom of the top 10 leaderboard. However, Sainz, too, recovered well on the final two tests to move up from ninth to fifth.
"The roads cleaned a lot for the later runners," said Sainz. "We started this morning knowing it would be impossible to be quickest today because of our running position. I don't know of another sport in which the leaders are penalised in the way the championship front-runners are in rallying. But fifth isn't a bad position given those circumstances and I'm optimistic for tomorrow because we'll have cleaner roads and there's plenty to battle for."
German's Armin Kremer and Dieter Schneppenheim retired their Focus RS when they went off the road 500 metres from the end of the final stage. Although the car was not badly damaged, they could not regain the track.
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Surprisingly there has been just one retirement. Tommi Mäkinen (Subaru) hit a rock in the penultimate stage, the impact breaking the power steering and damaging the steering itself. It was too much and retirement was instant when his right front wheel fell off in the final test. Team-mate Petter Solberg dropped more than a minute on the first stage when he spun and stalled his engine and lost another 40 seconds after hitting a rock two stages later and damaging the rear suspension. He is 17th. Also in trouble was championship leader Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) who fell back after spinning, stalling his engine and losing 20 seconds. Freddy Loix and Armin Schwarz (both Hyundai) made the most of the cleaner roads to lie second and third after four stages but penalties for Schwarz when the team changed a bracket on his engine's water pipe and spins in both the last two stages dropped the German to eighth. Kenneth Eriksson and Toni Gardemeister (both Skoda) were plagued by differential troubles, while stomach problems added to Gardemeister's woes. Sebastian Loeb (Citroen) had brake problems and team-mate Thomas Rådström made a poor afternoon tyre choice but both lie on the top 10 leaderboard.
The second leg covers similar territory in the mountains north of Itea. After leaving the Parnassos re-start at 07.15, drivers face six more stages covering 158.76km before returning at 18.29. Included in the itinerary is the first of two runs over the Elatia test, the longest of the rally at 37.16km.