WRC

Gronholm stretches out Acropolis lead

Gronholm stretches out Acropolis lead

Marcus Gronholm started the second day of the Acropolis Rally -- the Greek round of the World Rally Championship -- with a solid lead of 26.3 seconds over Petter Solberg, and he was in no mood to give that up today, consolidating his position at...

Marcus Gronholm started the second day of the Acropolis Rally -- the Greek round of the World Rally Championship -- with a solid lead of 26.3 seconds over Petter Solberg, and he was in no mood to give that up today, consolidating his position at the front.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"Things look good tonight and I hope tomorrow will go as well as the last two days," Gronholm said, hopefully. "This is the toughest Acropolis for six years and I cannot feel comfortable yet. In these conditions, whatever the size of the lead, it is not enough."

"Rocks have been banging the underneath of the car everywhere and I've been pushing hard but the Focus has stood up to everything that has been thrown at it," he explained. "It's incredible. I carried two spare wheels this afternoon, which was a good decision as I had two punctures."

Gronholm, driving on his favorite surface, gravel roads, claimed victories on four of the day's six stages, and held a 25-second lead over Sebastien Loeb entering the day's final stage, the second pass through the 17-km Patha stage.

S?bastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
Photo by xpb.cc.
This time lady luck was on Gronholm's side, as the Finn speeded his Ford Focus WRC through the stage 11 minutes 23.6 seconds, 2.8 seconds ahead of the "other Solberg" -- Henning Solberg, driving a privateer 2005-spec Peugeot 207 WRC.

That in itself may not seem extraordinarily fortunate, but Loeb, running in second, burst one of the BFGoodrich tires on his Kronos Racing Citroen Xsara less than a minute into the stage, and ended up finishing the stage 1:22 behind Gronholm, and dropping 1:47 behind his rival at the day's end.

And then there was the "Petter Solberg incident": on the road stage en route to the start of SS13, a civilian driver driving in the opposite direction moved into Solberg's lane, forcing the Norwegian ace to swerve rapidly in his Subaru Impreza WRC to avoid a collision.

Unfortunately for him, lady luck was preoccupied with Gronholm, and his avoidance manoeuver directed him at a large boulder, damaging the steering and suspension components. He was unable to take the start, then, and under the SupeRally rules, incurred a five-minute penalty instead, dropping him from third place to ninth, now 6:19 behind Gronholm.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by xpb.cc.
It's just incredible what happened," said the frustrated 2003 champion. "I came around a tight right-hander and was forced to swerve to avoid an accident with a car coming the other way, hitting the rock face and breaking the steering arm."

"What with Sebastien's problems [opening an opportunity] it's just so frustrating, but that is mine and Phil's luck all year," he continued. "We'll have to see what happens from here as the plan is to get the car back and re-start tomorrow."

Loeb was consistently second on most stages, only a second or two behind Gronholm, and then made that up and more on the two passes through Kineta, at 37 km the longest stage of the rally.

Mikko Hirvonen, in the second works Focus WRC, holds down third place, though over a minute behind Loeb. Hirvonen drove conservatively all day, focusing on securing the fourth place -- which then turned into a third when Solberg experienced his mishap on the final stage.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
Photo by xpb.cc.
"My aim is to hold position and gain points for BP-Ford," Hirvonen explained. "I have no need to push hard because our position is safe as long as we have no troubles. I'm in no rush and I just want to take it steady and bring the car home safely. It's unbelievable the punishment this car can take because it was so rough this afternoon. I have never seen rocks like it on a special stage!"

In spite of the cautious drive, he was still comfortably faster than his nearest challenger, Daniel Sordo in the second Kronos entry, and gained 25 seconds on Sordo on the day, even as the latter moved from ninth to fourth.

Behind Hirvonen, it's a hard-fought battle for the remaining points-paying positions, with Sordo in fourth only 18 seconds ahead of Toni Gardemeister (Citroen Xsara) in seventh. Slotted between the two Xsaras are the two privateer Peugeot 307 WRCs of Manfred Stohl and Henning Solberg, three and six seconds behind Sordo, respectively.

"Excluding this minor problem it was a lot of fun," said the elder Solberg. "We didn't take full risk on the long special stage; there are so many rocks on the road that a tyre damage is almost unavoidable. But we'll ride a full attack on Sunday."

Xavier Pons, in another privateer Xsara, holds down eighth place, but appears not to be a threat to the foursome, being over a minute and a half adrift of Gardemeister.

The final day has only five stages, one of them being another 2.8 km superspecial at the olympic stadium, but the other four stages are rough gravel that has further deteriorated, having already been run twice in the other direction during the rally.

"We have already driven tomorrow's stages twice so they will be even rougher," Gronholm explained. "They aren't nice roads and they could be car killers. I need to find a good pace and keep my concentration but I'm not in a hurry or a panic and I hope I can take things a little easier and avoid the rocks."

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