Gronholm on top in Rally Australia

Marcus Gronholm was back in his element on the first day of Rally Australia, holding a 21-second lead over Sebastien Loeb after a day on the gravel roads of Rally Australia, the final round of the 2004 World Rally Championship. Marcus ...

Marcus Gronholm was back in his element on the first day of Rally Australia, holding a 21-second lead over Sebastien Loeb after a day on the gravel roads of Rally Australia, the final round of the 2004 World Rally Championship.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by Team Peugeot.
Gronholm, piloting a Peugeot 307 WRC, clearly enjoyed being back on gravel again, after three consecutive tarmac rallies, setting fastest times in five of the day's nine stages, and building comfortable lead over Loeb.

"This has been a near-perfect start to the rally," the satisfied Finn explained. "We have been trying to go at a sensible pace all day, pushing quite hard but not taking any stupid risks either."

"(Loeb) is coming quickly behind us so we have to keep going at a good pace," Gronholm admitted. "But I am not making any changes to the car at service and I feel quite confident."

Loeb, who clinched the 2004 championship earlier in the season, did set the fastest time in his Citroen Xsara in two of the stages -- Murray North and Murray South -- but overall did not have the pace of Gronholm, and lost some time again on the final four stages.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by Citro?n Sport.
He was admittedly hampered by having to open the stages -- run first on each stage -- due to being the WRC points leader. With the gravel having been somewhat dampened overnight, this did not appear to be a huge factor on the early stages, where Gronholm pulled out most of his lead, but Loeb still felt it made a difference.

"During recce, this part of the route was very wet, with no top coating of gravel," he explained. "Today, it was completely dry and the gravel had reappeared. I definitely feel I lost time being first on the road."

Behind the two key contenders is Gronholm's Peugeot teammate, Harri Rovanpera, who is well back in third place, 1:06 behind Gronholm. Ford's young gun Francois Duval is another 30 seconds behind Rovanpera, having lost massive time in the early stages -- 33 seconds on SS3 alone -- due to a poor suspension setup choice.

"It was a difficult start," Duval rued his start. "The set-up of the car felt too soft, but there was little we could do to alter it, so our springs and tyres were too soft all morning. With no gravel crews allowed, we had no warning of where the water was so it was quite difficult."

Fran?ois Duval and St?phane Pr?vot.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
Duval's teammate, Markko Martin, lost his chance for a third straight victory when the engine in his Ford Focus failed after the just one stage. Martin was in sixth place at that point, behind Duval, but a single superspecial is rarely an accurate indicator of overall performance.

Beyond the SS1 results, though, Martin's engine had dropped back to three cylinders at the end of SS1 and lost oil pressure. When the team tried to restart it before SS2, they discovered that the engine had suffered serious piston damage, and Martin's rally was over.

Petter Solberg, Subaru's star driver, had to retire just three stages later when he hit a rock, breaking his steering. At the time, he was 10.8 adrift of Gronholm, and clearly in front of Loeb. The Norwegian had locked up second in the 2004 drivers' standings with both Sainz and Martin out of the competition.

"I was 5.8 kilometres from the start line on a right-hand, third-gear corner and there was a rock on the apex, which I hit and which broke the steering arm," Solberg recounted the incident. "After that we couldn't steer and went off the road on the other side. Apart from that, the car is okay."

Solberg decided to take advantage of the SupeRally restart system and came back to take the fastest times on the day's final two stages: SS8 and SS9. No points will be allowed for the Subaru driver but the popular Norwegian and 2003 champion can relax and enjoy the final two days of competitive driving.

Solberg's teammate, Mikko Hirvonen, is in fifth, 3:21 behind the leader.

With Citroen's Carlos Sainz having already withdrawn from the rally before SS1 due to a heavy recce shunt, the points positions on the leaderboard are dotted with privateer entries -- Antony Warmbold (Ford Focus WRC 02), Alister McRae (production-class Subaru Impreza WRX) and Chris Atkinson (Subaru Impreza WRX) are all holding down points positions entering the second day's stages.

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Series WRC
Drivers Carlos Sainz , Marcus Gronholm , Petter Solberg , Alister McRae , Sébastien Loeb , Francois Duval , Timo Rautiainen , Daniel Elena , Mikko Hirvonen , Chris Atkinson , Antony Warmbold , Markko Martin
Teams Citroën World Rally Team