Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm has gone from strength to strength in the first two legs of this weekend's Rally Finland, his home event. Leading by six seconds after the first day, Gronholm dominated today's World Rally action, taking wins in six of...
Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm has gone from strength to strength in the first two legs of this weekend's Rally Finland, his home event. Leading by six seconds after the first day, Gronholm dominated today's World Rally action, taking wins in six of the seven stages.
His archrival and current World Rally Championship leader Sebastien Loeb won the opening stage of the day, running Michelin's new Z BTO development tires. But the tires didn't give the Loeb the same kind of advantage on the other six stages, and Gronholm stretched his lead out to more than a full minute before Sunday's final five stages.
"The gamble paid off," Loeb confirmed. "The traction and braking were excellent. But these tyres were not so effective in the two Ouninpohja stages. I didn't drive as tidily and I was less incisive. That said, even if I had been on the same type of tyre as yesterday, I think Marcus would have been quicker over those two."
That famous Ouninpohja special had been divided into two sections, east and west, this year, after Petter Solberg averaged more than 130 km/h on the combined stage last year. So this year there were four Ouninpohja stages, both east and west being driven twice. These stages gave Gronholm a decisive edge over Loeb, as he gained 17 seconds -- after averaging 129.5 km/h on the four!
"Our tyre choice this morning was perfect for Ouninpohja, and we had no problems at all," Gronholm recounted. "I was careful with Timo's (co-pilot Rautianen's) back on the jumps, but after those we would go flat out."
Rautianen, who had hurt his back on the jumps of the Vellipohja special on Friday, along with Loeb's co-pilot Daniel Elena, was recovering today, and said that his back was doing fairly well.
But while Gronholm appeared to have things well in hand after Moksi-Leustu, the penultimate stage of the day, with a 30-second lead over Loeb, it would get better for him yet: Lady Luck would pay a rare visit to the Finn.
On the final stage, Himos, Loeb's Citroen landed badly after a jump, hitting a concealed rock and ripping off a large chunk of the tire. The Frenchman was able to finish the stage, but the tire quickly shredded off the wheel, and it's hard to keep up the pace on the bare rim, and Loeb dropped 37 seconds further back.
"I gave it everything I could," Loeb summed up his day. "There was nothing I could do. Marcus was faster. Tomorrow, without taking any risks, I will try to keep Markko Martin at bay with a view to scoring as many points as possible."
Markko Martin, in the second works Peugeot, still holds down third place, 35 seconds behind Loeb, and 45 seconds ahead of the Petter Solberg-Mikko Hirvonen battle. Too far to attack, really, so it'll be a day of conservative driving for the Estonian.
"This is definitely the best rally of my year so far," Martin said at the end of the leg. "I've got confidence in the handling of the car now and of course the engine is very good, which has allowed us to set some fast times. We've moved ahead of the battle we were in, so tomorrow our plan is to drive for a podium finish."
That battle Martin was referring to was with Toni Gardemeister, the young Finn who had his Ford Focus within 20 seconds of Martin, wasn't so much won by Martin as lost by Gardemeister, who suffered a puncture on the long Moksi-Leustu SS16, losing 90 seconds in limping to the finish.
"The tire exploded suddenly in the fastest part of the stage," Gardemeister recalled. "Fortunately we kept the car on the road, as we were flat out in sixth gear at that point. There were many stones in the early part of the stage and maybe that was the problem, I don't really know."
Gardemeister fell to seventh, and after setting the fastest time on the final stage, lies just 3.7 seconds adrift of Mitsubishi pilot Harri Rovanpera. "All we can do now is try to get ahead of Rovanpera for sixth because there are not enough kilometres left tomorrow to do anything else," Gardemeister summed up his plan.
The biggest beneficiaries of Gardemeister's tire problems were Petter Solberg and Mikko Hirvonen. The battling duo were 20 seconds behind Gardemeister, and Solberg was losing ground; now their battle will be for fourth place rather than fifth.
"Yesterday was a medium plus day for me, this morning was a medium minus but this afternoon I was back to a medium plus again," said the modest Hirvonen. "I compared my times with Toni and Petter and I won a second here, and lost a second there, so it was up and down all day. Before the rally I thought that if I was going to lose time it would be today, but that wasn't the case."
In fact, Hirvonen, driving his first Rally Finland in a purebred WRC car, sparkled on the day, taking more than 16 seconds off the Norwegian veteran's lead, and putting himself in a position to steal away the fourth place on tomorrow's final leg.
"I will try hard to catch Solberg but it won't be easy, although tomorrow's stages are more familiar to me," Hirvonen summed up his thoughts. "But I have the perfect car, the perfect tyres, and the perfect weather for it!"
Solberg's outlook is certainly more defensive: "Just before the long stage today we tried some damper changes to get more traction, but I found that it made the car slide so much and we lost a lot of grip. Then, on the last stage, we tried some new changes and that was so much better. I think we'll keep the same setting for tomorrow. We'll keep trying with the four stages left, but it's a short day and the aim is to keep winning the fight for fourth."
Rovanpera holds down a credible sixth place in his works Mitsubishi Lancer WRC, but he's going to be had-pressed to defend it against a charging Gardemeister tomorrow -- and Hirvonen is more than a minute up the road.
Francois Duval, in the second works Citroen Xsara, holds down the final point in eighth place, but unless someone falls out in the final stages, that point, combined with Loeb's eight for second place, won't be enough for Citroen to retain the manufacturers' championship lead with the onslaught of the Peugeots in Rally Finland.