Panizzi Eighth For Mitsubishi WRC Team
The Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports WRC crew of Gilles Panizzi/Hervé Panizzi finished the opening leg of the Cyprus Rally in eighth position this afternoon. Team-mates Kristian Sohlberg/Kaj Lindström have however experienced problems during the leg and the Finnish pair have dropped to 16th in the second Lancer WRC04.
Limassol's promenade played host to the start of the event last night and thousands of spectators and holiday-makers enjoyed the opening festivities and spectacular firework display on the sea-front. This morning however, the action kicked off in earnest high in the Troodos Mountains to the north of the host resort with two loops of three stages and 121.78 competitive kilometers of car-breaking roads and scorching temperatures lying in wait.
Mindful of the nature of this notoriously rough event, Gilles and Hervé Panizzi took a cautious approach to the first stage, the longest of the event. However the Lancer WRC04 crew picked up the pace and held ninth position after three stages and 60.89 competitive kilometers. This afternoon, the Panizzi brothers fared better and while the pair was eighth fastest in the repeat of the longest stage, they powered to sixth and fifth fastest through the final two stages of the leg.
"This is the first time we have driven such long stages (SS 1/4 -- 38.32 km) and because I didn't know how well the tires would withstand the conditions, I was a bit careful in these stages", said Gilles. "The car was also too low and bottoming out so I was also taking care for this because I didn't want to break anything. At the mid-day service we changed the suspension settings, especially the springs, and it was a big improvement this afternoon".
Team-mates Kristian Sohlberg and Kaj Lindström set the Mitsubishi pace in the opening stage, the Finnish pair eighth in the second Lancer WRC04. However, Sohlberg's charge was halted in the second stage when a broken sump guard forced him to drive slowly through this stage and the next to preserve the car and get back to service for vital repairs. As a consequence, the pair dropped from an early eighth to 11th. "The sump guard came loose in the first stage but we managed to fix it before the start of the second", commented Kristian at the mid-leg service. "Then during the stage it broke completely. Overall I was happy with our pace in the first stage, based on where we know the car development is at the moment".
Sohlberg's woes continued this afternoon however and a slipping clutch on the slowest and most twisty roads in the championship saw him plummet down the leaderboard further to an overnight 16th.
"About 15 kilometers into stage four the clutch started slipping badly", added Kristian. "We slowed right down and the objective was then to just get through the next 40 kilometers of stages. I don't really know what caused the problem at the moment, but in an event like this the whole transmission is on overload all the time. I'm pleased to still be here this evening though so we can fix the problems, get some more experience tomorrow and try a few new things".
Adding to the drivers' comments, the team's Technical Director Mario Fornaris said: "I am quite happy, firstly because we have two cars that have made it through the day's stages and secondly because we have made improvements during the day. I cannot say we are totally happy with the car, but we are understanding more and getting the experience and for that I am happy".
Despite the Cyprus Rally only qualifying for full FIA World Rally Championship points, a host of Group N drivers are vying for honors in this highly-competitive category. Local man Andreas Tsouloftas currently leads the contenders in his Lancer Evolution with no fewer than four other Lancers at the top of the Group N leaderboard at the end of a long, dry and dusty day of competition.
The second leg of the Cyprus Rally takes the remaining crews to the north and northwest of Limassol for two loops of three stages totaling 109.56 competitive kilometers.
News from our rivals...
Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) has taken the early lead, despite clutch problems at the end of stage four, inheriting the advantage from reigning World Champion Petter Solberg in the same stage. Solberg - who led throughout the morning with two stage victories - ultimately dropped to 11th when the Subaru engine went into 'safe' mode after the radiator filled with sand. Grönholm's team-mate Harri Rovanperä holds second, while Sébastien Loeb has climbed to third after team-mate and former Cyprus Rally winner Carlos Sainz lost time with tire woes in the final stage of the leg. Ford's hopes of a top result lay in the hands of Markko Märtin, the Estonian fourth overall and upholding team honors after François Duval was forced into retirement in the first stage after losing the front left wheel. With Sainz dropping to fifth, the final top six position is held by Mikko Hirvonen in the lead Subaru.