Gronholm extends Ford's lead as Acropolis takes fearsome toll BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen extended their lead of the Acropolis Rally of Greece today as the rocky gravel roads in the hills surrounding...
Gronholm extends Ford's lead as Acropolis takes fearsome toll
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen extended their lead of the Acropolis Rally of Greece today as the rocky gravel roads in the hills surrounding Athens wrecked the hopes of many competitors. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car returned to the Greek capital this evening after a gruelling second leg with a 1min 47.2sec advantage, with team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lying third in a similar car.
This eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship is regarded as the toughest event in the calendar. Boulder-strewn tracks and blistering heat ensured that merely surviving this afternoon's speed tests proved too much for many, but the Focus RS cars excelled in the arduous conditions in the Corinth hills, west of Athens.
Drivers tackled two identical loops of three special stages, split by service in the city's Olympic Stadium. BP-Ford strengthened the protection under the Focus RS cars last night in preparation for today's action. Roads that were already rough on this morning's first pass, were hostile during the second run this afternoon and few escaped some sort of misery during the 134.68km of competition.
Gronholm, started with a 26.3sec lead, and won two of the morning's three stages to increase that to 29.2sec. He was fastest on the same tests again this afternoon, taking his tally of victories to 10 from 13 stages, and stretched his lead as closest rival Sebastien Loeb limped through the final few kilometres after a rear tyre punctured.
"Things look good tonight and I hope tomorrow will go as well as the last two days," said 38-year-old Gronholm. "This is the toughest Acropolis for six years and I cannot feel comfortable yet. In these conditions, whatever the size of the lead, it is not enough. Rocks have been banging the underneath of the car everywhere and I've been pushing hard but the Focus has stood up to everything that has been thrown at it. It's incredible. I carried two spare wheels this afternoon, which was a good decision as I had two punctures.
"We have already driven tomorrow's stages twice so they will be even rougher. They aren't nice roads and they could be car killers. I need to find a good pace and keep my concentration but I'm not in a hurry or a panic and I hope I can take things a little easier and avoid the rocks," he added.
Hirvonen concentrated on consolidating fourth position. He took no risks and a string of consistent times enabled the 25-year-old Finn to pull clear of his rivals, climbing to third when Loeb hit trouble. "My aim is to hold position and gain points for BP-Ford," he said. "I have no need to push hard because our position is safe as long as we have no troubles. I'm in no rush and I just want to take it steady and bring the car home safely. It's unbelievable the punishment this car can take because it was so rough this afternoon. I have never seen rocks like it on a special stage.
"The team has done a fantastic job with the car after our test last week. Ford has always been strong in Greece and the car has been incredibly reliable so far. Tomorrow will be as hard as today has been and I think there will be some surprises. It will be rocky everywhere and the time advantage that I have will mean nothing if I collect a puncture," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted by the 'fantastic' performance of Gronholm and Hirvonen. "They have both driven superbly. What we have experienced today are probably the hardest conditions we have seen in the championship for some years and the Focus coped with them remarkably. I'm confident the team can reproduce the same kind of display tomorrow," he said.
News from our Rivals
Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) won two stages but when a rear tyre punctured 1km after the start of the final stage, he dropped 1min 20sec dragging his car through the remaining 16km on its suspension. Hard luck story of the day concerned Petter Solberg (Subaru). The Norwegian lost second this morning after spinning and then the gearchange paddle mounted on the steering wheel broke this afternoon. Finally on the liaison section to the final stage the Norwegian had to swerve to avoid an oncoming car on the same side of the road. He hit a rock and the impact broke his car's steering, leaving him stranded. Dani Sordo and Toni Gardemeister (both Citroen) and Manfred Stohl and Henning Solberg (both Peugeot) enjoyed a terrific four-way fight for fourth. The quartet were covered by a handful of seconds and swapped positions on every stage. Sordo eventually claimed fourth from Solberg, who incurred a 20 second penalty after a brake problem this morning. Less than 18 seconds cover the four drivers. Francois Duval (Skoda) and Kosti Katajamaki (Ford) both retired with a broken gearbox while Chris Atkinson (Subaru) stopped on the final stage with broken steering. Thirty-three of the day's 79 starters failed to complete the leg.