WRC

Martin in strong position to win Rally Catalunya

Martin in strong position to win Rally Catalunya

Markko Martin still has a full day and six special stages to go, but he is now the clear favorite to win Rally Catalunya and follow up his win in the last round of the World Rally Championship, in Corsica a fortnight ago. Markko Martin...

Markko Martin still has a full day and six special stages to go, but he is now the clear favorite to win Rally Catalunya and follow up his win in the last round of the World Rally Championship, in Corsica a fortnight ago.

Markko Martin and Michael Park.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
The Estonian is looking for his third win of the year, and he has a 40-second lead and the pace that's plenty fast to hang onto victory, provided that he makes it through Sunday without serious driving errors or mechanical troubles.

"I'm not really attacking, just driving safely to keep ahead of those behind us," Martin explained. "I would have adopted a different pace if (Sebastien) Loeb were still in the rally. I've managed to keep the same time gap all day. I wanted to finish the leg with a minimum 35 second gap and I've done that."

And Loeb, last night's overall leader? He won the first stage of the day, the 22-km Les Llosses-Alpens, and stretched his lead over Martin to 3.4 seconds. But the newly-crowned champion damaged his oil sump on a rock near the end of the stage, and ended up having to abandon the race en route to the start of the next stage, SS8.

With Martin's Ford Focus teammate, Francois Duval, having retired on the first day already, the closest challenger, then, was Marcus Gronholm in a Peugeot 307, 42.9 seconds off the pace after SS8, closely followed by Loeb's Citroen teammate, Carlos Sainz.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen.
Photo by Team Peugeot.
Gronholm, already a double world champion, smelled an opportunity, and went on the attack. The Finn took wins in three of the day's remaining five stages (SS10 was cancelled due to spectators on the road), but was not able to make up much ground on Martin.

"We've been trying little adjustments to the car all day and I think we are making some progress now," Gronholm recalled at the day's finish. "Realistically it will be very difficult to catch (Martin) without something dramatic happening, but you never know in rallying. I have to keep the pressure on and maybe he will make a mistake."

Sainz, himself a two-time champion as well, was not able to quite keep up with Gronholm, and finished the day 51 seconds off the lead and 11.4 seconds behind Gronholm, but still comfortably in third place.

Petter Solberg, winner of three of the last four WRC rallies, was having a torrid time of it, though, as the 2003 champion could not work out why his Subaru Impreza would not handle on the Catalunyan mountain roads.

Petter Solberg and Phil Mills.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.
"I can't drive at 100 per cent," was Solberg's summary. And it's clear he's frustrated, sitting in fifth place, 2:39 off the lead and behind privateer Stephane Sarrazin, who is driving a year-old Impreza. In the course of the day, he dropped 1:20 to Martin and almost as much to Gronholm -- and 50 seconds to Sarrazin.

With the reliability and handling issues the works entries have encountered, smaller teams have, in fact, locked down half the points positions. In addition to Sarrazin in fourth, sixth through seventh places are held by Daniel Sola (Mitsubishi Lancer), Gianluigi Galli (Mitsubishi) and Nicolas Vouilloz (privateer Pegeot 206).

Just out of the points are Mikko Hirvonen in the second Subaru, plus Toni Gardemeister and Armin Schwartz in the Skoda Fabias, all about four minutes behind Martin, and 20-30 seconds adrift of Vouilloz in eighth.

Tomorrow's final leg will finish with the Viladrau 2 stage just after lunchtime local time.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team