World title battle rages as BP-Ford closes on leaders in Cyprus

BP-Ford World Rally Team claimed a double podium finish on the Cyprus Rally today as the fight for the FIA World Rally Championship became ever more exciting. Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen were second in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after three days of tough competition over sun-baked rocky tracks in the Mediterranean island's mountains. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen claimed third in another Focus RS as Ford closed to within just seven points of the leaders.

The battle for the manufacturers' world crown is a thrilling one and the podium success allowed BP-Ford to reduce the deficit at the top of the standings by another four points with four rounds remaining. The Blue Oval squad has outscored leaders Kronos Citroen by 10 points over the last three rallies. Grönholm strengthened his grip on second in the drivers' championship while Hirvonen moved to within two points of third-placed Dani Sordo.

This 12th round of the series lived up to its reputation as a potential car-breaker. Air temperatures which peaked at 38Ë^ÚC and boulder-strewn gravel roads in the Troodos Mountains proved too much for many during the three days and 288.51km of competition. However, both Focus RS cars encountered no major difficulties during the 20 speed tests. (Two stages, including the Lemesos street stage, were cancelled today for safety reasons.)

Grönholm led from the start until a spin yesterday afternoon dropped him behind Sébastien Loeb. He started today's final leg 21.8sec behind the Frenchman and attacked on the opening special stage. But when it became clear that Loeb was matching his pace, the 38-year-old Finn sensibly eased back and concentrated on taking second and good manufacturer points. Despite that he still won three tests, taking his tally for the event to nine, and eventually finished 21.2sec behind Loeb.

"This is a great result for our challenge in the manufacturers' championship," said Grönholm. "Unfortunately I wasn't quite fast enough to beat Loeb here. The roads are so twisty that for some corners it is necessary to change right down to first gear. That's the big difference between here and the hot, rough rally in Greece that we won in June. We had no big problems with the car, again it was so strong in these conditions. It was so hot here that it was like a bad sauna! Next we go to Turkey, which should be cooler but it will be another rough event. We have proved the Focus is good on rough, tough roads so I'm looking forward to taking on Loeb again - and beating him!"

Hirvonen settled into third early on the first day and opened a comfortable gap over Manfred Stohl in fourth. The 26-year-old Finn eased through the final leg, matching his pace to the split times of the Austrian, which were transmitted into Hirvonen's car during the stages. He eventually finished 1min 23.6sec clear of Stohl to claim his third consecutive third place finish.

"This is my fifth podium in six rallies and it helped us move nearer the leaders in the championship which was our aim," said Hirvonen. "I found it difficult to settle into a good rhythm here. I had a big talk with Marcus and Christian Loriaux (technical director) last night and I now think I made a mistake with the set-up of my car for the rally. I made the decision before the start and so that is another lesson I have learned and I should be even more competitive on the next round in Turkey. It's good for me to close in on Dani Sordo in the drivers' series and put pressure on him. My mechanics have done a great job here in tough conditions and it has been a really good team effort."

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said: "We made the decision with Marcus to see how the opening stage went this morning, and if we then felt we could not pull the time back, he would ease his pace. Manufacturer points were too important to take risks and there is everything to play for now. I'm happy with the performance and reliability on one of the most difficult events in the series and it is an important stepping stone for the rest of the season."

Ford TeamRS director Jost Capito added: "Our target was to close the gap in the manufacturers' championship which we have done successfully. We are now in a position to really challenge for the title in the first year of the brand new Focus RS WRC, which exceeds our expectations by far."

News from our Rivals

Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) eased through the final leg to extend his lead in the drivers' championship to 35 points. Behind Hirvonen, Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) took fourth ahead of Toni Gardemeister (Citroen), who survived a spin this morning. Henning Solberg (Peugeot) completed the top six, climbing two places when firstly brother Petter (Subaru) dropped 90 seconds on the final stage after hitting a rock and damaging a wheel. Then Xevi Pons (Citroen) slipped to seventh when his car stopped with transmission troubles just 2km from the service park on the final liaison section. Dani Sordo (Citroen) lost the final manufacturers' point after crashing in the Lemesos street stage, despite it being run non-competitively. Matthew Wilson (Ford) inherited the final point in 10th.

Next round

Round 13 next month is another hot weather, rough road event in the Mediterranean. The Rally of Turkey is based in the southern coast holiday resort of Kemer on 12 - 15 October.

-credit: ford