Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot steered clear of trouble to finish today's gruelling opening leg of the Acropolis Rally in third. Rocky gravel tracks in the mountains of central Greece ensured this sixth round of...
Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot steered clear of trouble to finish today's gruelling opening leg of the Acropolis Rally in third. Rocky gravel tracks in the mountains of central Greece ensured this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship lived up to its reputation as one of the toughest of the 16-rally series. But the Belgians matched speed with the strength of their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to escape the troubles that afflicted many.
Team-mates Markko Martin and Michael Park, lying second in the championship, retired their similar Focus RS after sliding off the road on the third speed test. Although the car was not badly damaged, they were unable to regain the track.
Early June in Greece usually brings searing temperatures and massive dust clouds. However, pre-event rain ensured today's eight special stages, covering 143.20km south of the rally base of Lamia, contained many muddy sections which made tyre choice difficult. Cool temperatures and overcast skies brought showers to ensure conditions rarely seen on the Acropolis.
Duval and Prevot were eighth after last night's spectacular opening super special stage but quickly climbed to fourth as the competition began in earnest this morning. Twenty-three-year-old Duval climbed to third in the afternoon and despite briefly slipping to fourth, he regained third by winning the final test in front of huge crowds at a repeat of the super special. He is just 5.9sec behind second-placed Harri Rovanpera and 1.6sec ahead of Marcus Gronholm.
"I wasn't happy with my driving this morning which was quite untidy but I had better concentration and confidence this afternoon when the car seemed easier to drive," he said. "On two occasions we were lucky to escape from big incidents but I think all the drivers could probably say the same today. I'm just going to continue driving at the same rhythm and the same speed because I really want to finish this rally. It's not necessary for me to be on the podium. Fourth or fifth place would be good so I'm not going to take any risks.
"The stages were slippery and I was nervous after I saw Markko off the road. It was drizzling on some stages and there has been a lot of rain since the recce so some roads were really muddy. When two or three cars have been through the watersplashes and pulled water onto the road, it makes the tracks even more slippery for those following. It has been a difficult day for tyres but Michelin has helped us make some good decisions. I had driven all of today's stages before but there are two new tests for me tomorrow, so that will be hard," he added.
Martin and Park were eighth through the opening stage, the duo handicapped by their road position which meant they had to contend with loose, slippery gravel on the surface. However, 20km after the start of the next test they slid off the road and down a steep bank. Despite help from spectators, they were unable to regain the track and retired.
"I entered a fairly slow left bend, maybe third gear, at about 40mph and slid wide," said Martin. "There was an area at the exit of the corner where the land had slipped away and I just ran out of road, and ended up down the bank. The car was no more than one metre off the road, but the back was at the bottom of the bank with the nose pointing up in the air. Spectators tried to help us but the car was stuck.
"It was a little mistake from the driver. I took the wrong line and just ran out of road. I'm obviously disappointed. A retirement is always bad and it's bad timing to miss out on points here, in what is traditionally one of the team's strongest rallies. But there are many more rallies remaining in the season so we must now look forward to the next," he added.
The Castrol-backed Focus RS was mechanically undamaged in the accident and the only scars were to the bodywork. Team director Malcolm Wilson confirmed Martin would re-start tomorrow's second leg under the new 'Superally' system, which is being trialled for the first time and allows retired cars to start subsequent legs. The system is being used on an experimental basis so neither Martin nor Ford will be eligible for points and his car will not be classified.
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Overnight leader Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) retained a narrow advantage until the fourth stage when Petter Solberg (Subaru) moved ahead. The Norwegian was fastest on five consecutive stages to open a 55.7sec lead. Gronholm spun on stages five and six but held onto second until team-mate Harri Rovanpera and Duval moved ahead when the Finn made a poor tyre choice. Rovanpera twice knocked his car's steering out of line after hitting rocks but recovered well. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) endured the worst of the conditions by starting the stages first but he lies fifth. Gilles Panizzi (Mitsubishi) suffered daylong difficulties with his car's shock absorbers but holds seventh, behind the privately-entered Daniel Carlsson. Panizzi is ahead of Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) who lost 90 seconds when a stone broke his car's brake pipe and he drove stage four with just the handbrake. Carlos Sainz (Citroen) dropped over 35 minutes after driving three stages with broken front suspension and he is last overall. Leading retirements included Dani Sola (Mitsubishi) who was forced out in a bizarre incident when another car ran into the back of him on the third stage. Armin Schwarz (Skoda) stopped with broken rear suspension and team-mate Toni Gardemeister retired on the final stage with an engine fire.
The second leg promises to be just as gruelling as today. Drivers leave Lamia at 07.00 for seven more speed tests south of the city covering 133.18km before returning for the final overnight halt at 18.51. Two tests are repeated and another two are repeats of stages used today, the leg ending with a third and final pass through the Lilea super special. In the morning drivers face more than 87km of rocky gravel tracks with no opportunity for traditional service. There will only be a 10 minute maintenance zone, away from the service park, in which only two team personnel and the driver and co-driver are allowed to work on the cars. Only spare parts carried in the rally car can be fitted in these zones.