BP-Ford duo sets sights on podium double in Cyprus Rally

BP-Ford World Rally Team remains on course to close the gap on the leaders of the FIA World Rally Championship after ending today's second leg of the Cyprus Rally with both drivers in podium positions. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen lie second in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car with team- mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen third in a similar car after another day of gruelling driving in the baking mountains.

Overnight leader Gronholm slipped from top spot this afternoon following a spin, but is just 21.8sec behind Sebastien Loeb with one day remaining of this 12th round of the 16-event series. Hirvonen holds a comfortable 56.8sec advantage in third in his identical BP Ultimate and Castrol-branded Focus RS, and a podium double at tomorrow's finish would enhance second- placed Ford's position in the manufacturers' championship.

Today's action comprised two identical loops of four speed tests, the first two of each loop north-east of the rally base in Lemesos and the second two further west in the Troodos Mountains. The competitive distance was 116.92km. The gravel mountain tracks were again rocky while air temperatures peaked at 38?C to provide another uncomfortable day for both drivers and cars.

Thirty-eight-year-old Gronholm started the day with a 6.4sec lead over Loeb. The Finn was fastest on the first two stages to widen his advantage to 10.2sec. Loeb was quickest on the next two and the drivers returned to service with Gronholm leading by 8.5sec. However, Gronholm spun on the second stage this afternoon to hand a 1.0sec advantage to Loeb. The Frenchman then attacked hard through the long 30.33km penultimate test to widen his lead, leaving Gronholm to ponder his afternoon tyre choice.

"I don't know why I lost so much time in the long stage this afternoon," he said. "I think maybe I had the wrong tyres. I had different tyres to Seb but I have never tested the rubber that he used so I don't know if they would have been better or not. But tyres are not the whole reason. It must have been my driving as well. I had no rhythm and it is so slow here that normally it is so difficult for a driver to take big amounts of time from a rival. We had been so close all rally.

"I also had a small spin on a slow corner, when I had to reverse the car. Now I have to decide what to do tomorrow. It will be hard to catch Seb, but I thought the same in Japan and it almost happened there. I hope he doesn't sleep well tonight!" added Gronholm.

Hirvonen's eyes were firmly fixed on the pace of fourth-placed Manfred Stohl. The 26-year-old matched his pace to that of the Austrian and extended his overnight advantage from 25.6sec to almost a minute.

"Stohl was driving hard and was close this morning so I continued to push," said Hirvonen. " On SS11, I hit a big stone so hard that it knocked the breath out of Jarmo and he couldn't read the pace notes for a couple of corners. It was good to have someone pressing me because it kept the motivation and concentration levels high. This afternoon I had a larger gap and was able to monitor his split times in the stages.

"I couldn't match the times of Marcus and Seb and that made me realise that I can improve here. But I'm doing the second driver's job, keeping a steady pace and looking to take a good, solid result for the team. The car has run like a clock today so I've had no worries about that. Tomorrow will be rough again with many bumps and big stones, but because of my time advantage I hope I will be able to drive around the stones," he added.

News from our Rivals

Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) conceded time to Gronholm on the first two stages but was quickest on each of the final six tests to build a 21.8sec lead. Behind Hirvonen, Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) retained fourth while Toni Gardemeister (Citroen) climbed from seventh to fifth and Xevi Pons (Citroen) completed the top six. Henning Solberg (Peugeot) restarted after going off on the final stage last night. He had to cope with hot water pouring onto his legs from the engine bay for much of the day but the Norwegian climbed to eighth. Dani Sordo (Citroen) dropped 30sec after a slow roll on the second stage but damage was small and he lies 10th. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) stalled under braking on the penultimate stage and went off into a ditch. The Australian was unable to get out and slipped from fifth to ninth. Luis Perez Companc (Ford) retired from eighth on stage 11 with broken power steering while team-mate Matthew Wilson ended his day on the penultimate stage when he went off after a gear selection problem sent his car into neutral.

Tomorrow's Route

The final leg is the shortest of the rally with 85.35km of competition. After starting at 07.41, competitors tackle three tests north-east of Lemesos in the hilly and forested Machairas area. They then return to the city for a spectacular asphalt test through the streets of the old town, which will be broadcast live across Europe on television. Two of the morning stages will be repeated before the finish in Lemesos at 16.42.

-credit: ford