Marcus Gronholm was feeling in sync with his Ford Focus RS WRC in the Swedish Rally again today: the two-time champion won five of the second leg's seven stages and built up a solid lead for the final day of this World Rally Championship ...
Marcus Gronholm was feeling in sync with his Ford Focus RS WRC in the Swedish Rally again today: the two-time champion won five of the second leg's seven stages and built up a solid lead for the final day of this World Rally Championship event.
"It was a perfect day," the Finnish veteran said. "I pushed really hard, but nothing crazy, on the second loop because the Focus felt great and it turned in to the corners superbly. We made good tyre choices because in some places the conditions weren't easy. "
With only a light layer of snow on top of the icy gravel roads, the conditions were a challenge for most of the drivers and crews, with the exposed gravel posing additional challenges for tire selection.
Three-time champion Sebastien Loeb, fresh off a season-opening victory in the Monte Carlo Rally, suffered from tire selection woes with his Citroen C4 WRC -- much like Gronholm struggled with his choices on the wet pavement of Monte Carlo three weeks ago.
"It was impossible to do any better," Loeb admitted. "I didn't make any mistakes, I simply could not drive any faster. We may already have lost this rally."
Loeb had started the day well, beating Gronholm to the finish by 1.2 seconds, and cutting the Finn's lead to under 10 seconds. It looked like the Frenchman was determined to take his second victory in Sweden, no matter what.
"He was driving like a man possessed," said Gronholm of Loeb's drive on that first stage.
But then it went all wrong for the Frenchman: a poor tire choice for SS11 and SS12 saw him drop 17 seconds to Gronholm an nearly triple the Finn's lead. Gronholm added another 10 seconds to his margin over the remaining three stages in a rapid but safe drive through the Swedish forests.
Loeb explained his concern: "As soon as I heard the first split times during SS11, I realized we were in trouble. The ice gave plenty of grip but my long studs meant I was moving about too much and I didn't have the precision I needed. I tried to concentrate during the following stage but all I could do again was try not lose too much time."
And then one small stumble, in the final superspecial, dropped Gronholm to 11th on the stage, won by 20-year-old Norwegian rally prodigy Mads Ostberg, running a semi-works Subaru Impreza WRC STI. Ostberg took the day's final stage victory, the first in his career, beating out Jari-Matti Latvala's M-Sport Ford Focus by 1.4 seconds.
"The gap is big enough now in a normal situation but there is still no room for mistakes," Gronholm admitted. "Just one wrong line will send me into a snowbank and the lead has gone. I lost a couple of seconds on the short final stage when I stalled the engine in a corner but that was the only thing that went wrong." ^ And Gronholm? He was 3.3 seconds behind Ostberg, but still eight tenths in front of Loeb, in spite of the stalled engine.
Behind the duel for victory, Mikko Hirvonen had struggled on Friday, losing over 15 seconds on SS2 after a power steering failure, and finished the first leg in fifth place. However, the Finn was determined to fight for the podium, and attacked the Solberg brothers -- Petter in third place and Henning in fourth -- as soon as the second leg got under way.
And in SS10, things started to go Hirvonen's way, as Petter spun his Subaru Impreza WRC 06 off the road and into a relatively deep ditch midway through the stage. as always, spectators were more than willing to help get him back under way, but it took nearly two dozen people pushing to get the Subaru out of the ditch and onto the road.
"I'm very disappointed about (the spin), and I'm really sorry to the supporters who were out on the stages for us," Solberg apologized, having spent over 13 minutes in the ditch. "It was good to be fighting back near the top and I'd have liked to have carried that fight on tomorrow, but unfortunately losing 14 minutes meant there was no chance."
The Prodrive Subaru team subsequently decided to withdraw Solberg's car from the event -- in spite of it having suffered no serious damage -- and to conserve it for next week's Rally Norway.
Hirvonen had taken another 1.8 seconds off Henning's lead on that stage, and on SS11, he made the gap six seconds to take third overall. He never looked back, an by the end of the day Hirvonen was some 27 seconds ahead of the elder Solberg's Stobart M-Sport Focus.
Solberg holds fourth place, having lost the battle with Hirvonen, but won another one with Toni Gardemeister. Gardemeister, too, slipped by Solberg on that eleventh stage, but the Norwegian fought back on SS12 and SS13 to build a four-second lead over Gardemeister's personally-entered Mitsubishi Lancer WRC.
And then Gardemeister's AWD system failed between stages. The Finnish veteran was late to the start, incurring a 50-second penalty, and then lost a further minute on the stage, dropping back into eighth place. At the end of the day, Gardemeister was 1.4 seconds behind OMV Kronos Citroen's seventh-placed Manfred Stohl, and 9.2 seconds in front of Stobart M-Sport's Jari-Matti Latvala.
"I will push tomorrow as the car is feeling really good now," Latvala said. "But we'll see, Gardemeister will surely be trying hard and Stohl is ten seconds away. Of course I would like to be in the points, but you have to keep your cool."
Between Solberg in fourth an Stohl in seventh are local hero Daniel Carlsson in the second Citroen Xsara entered by OMV Kronos, and Chris Atkinson in the second works Subaru, the Swede some nine seconds ahead of the young Aussie. The two are over a minute behind Solberg and 30 seconds in front of Stohl, so the fight for fifth place appears to be theirs alone.
"We've run at a pace that we're comfortable with, rather than try to be too ambitious and push too hard," Atkinson said. "We're just 8.6 seconds behind Carlsson going into the final leg, but it will be tough to beat him because this is his home event and, remember, he finished third here last year. I think our choice of BFGoodrich tyres gave us a slight advantage this afternoon, but if we both choose the same tyres tomorrow it'll be very hard to make up that time."
The rally finishes tomorrow with two runs through each of Backa (30.95 km) and Malta (11.25 km), followed by a second visit to the rally-opening superspecial stage in Karlstad.