Ford and Grönholm lead in Cyprus as conditions take big toll
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lead the Cyprus Rally tonight after the heat and rock-strewn roads of the Mediterranean island battered many of their rivals into submission. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car showed no weaknesses in the gruelling conditions and the Finns ended the opening leg with a 6.4sec advantage. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are third in another Focus RS after a troublefree performance.
This 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship is widely regarded as the toughest in the series. Rough gravel tracks high in the Troodos Mountains ensured that only the strongest cars prospered today. Tortuously twisty roads combined with scorching summer sunshine to place high demands on both man and machine, as the heat increased in the cockpit and cooling systems worked overtime to keep engine and transmission temperatures under control.
Drivers tackled two identical loops of four stages in the mountains north of the rally base in Lemesos, covering 111.48km. Such was the twisty nature of the tracks that average speeds hovered around 65kph, meaning there was little airflow to cool either car or drivers as air temperatures reached 36?C.
Grönholm powered into the lead by winning the opening three stages, and then doubled his advantage over Sébastien Loeb to 17.9sec on the last of the morning. The 38-year-old Finn added a fourth stage win this afternoon, but Loeb fought back on the final three tests to reduce his deficit.
"To be leading tonight was my target but the gap is obviously not big enough to relax," said Grönholm. "I will still need to push hard tomorrow to try to build on my advantage. There was a lot of loose gravel on the stages this morning and while it was better to run second on the road than first, there was little difference. There wasn't much of a clean line from Seb's car, just in the areas where he accelerated. The roads seem looser than in previous years after regrading.
"I think my tyre choice this afternoon was wrong because it was difficult to maintain the same pace as this morning. I lost grip and with that went some of my confidence. I was surprised how much loose gravel there was this afternoon. The roads weren't as clean as I expected and that didn't help," he added.
BP-Ford team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen did not enjoy the twisty stages but settled into third this morning. They maintained the position throughout the afternoon, setting third fastest time on all four tests in their BP Ultimate and Castrol-branded Focus RS.
"It was a good but difficult day," said Hirvonen. "It was rough, hot and tough and mentally it's hard when you don't enjoy the stages. It's frustrating because the stages are quite slow and I've struggled a bit because I'm either driving too fast or too slow. They were slippery, which surprised me, and I almost had a big spin in the first stage this morning after braking too late and I can't afford that. It was only then I realised how slippery it was and that I needed to be neater.
"Now I need to monitor the times of Manfred Stohl behind me and maintain the same kind of pace. But I'm finding it hard to judge the speed on these roads so I need to keep calm. The car has taken some big impacts on the rocks but it is strong and absorbed the punishment well," he added.
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Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) struggled in the loose gravel this morning but the Frenchman won the final three stages to close the gap on Grönholm. Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) held fourth despite overheating problems while Chris Atkinson (Subaru) is fifth, in spite of more serious overheating that put his car into 'safe' mode on all four morning tests. Xevi Pons (Citroen) completed the top six despite losing a minute after spinning on stage 3 and another 45sec after hitting a rock on the last test. Toni Gardemeister (Citroen) held third but gear selection problems this morning and a puncture and more transmission troubles this afternoon cost more than two minutes. He is seventh. Petter Solberg (Subaru) is 11th after similar overheating problems to Atkinson were followed by a broken gearbox that left him with just second gear for the final two tests. Dani Sordo (Citroen) retired from sixth with a broken engine on the penultimate test while Henning Solberg (Peugeot) stopped on the final test when in fifth. Matthew Wilson (Ford) was sixth until a faulty battery halted him at the finish of the final test. Team-mates Harri Rovanperä and Andreas Aigner (Skoda) both retired on the liaison section after the first stage with overheating troubles in their cars' electronics system. They will not restart tomorrow.
The second leg is the longest of the rally with 116.92km of competition split between eight stages. The day is again divided into two identical loops of four tests with competitors returning to Lemesos for service at lunchtime. The first two tests of the loop are north-east of Lemesos before cars return to the Troodos Mountains for two more stages which are further west towards Paphos than today's action. Competitors restart at 07.45 and return for the final overnight halt at 19.24.