Gronholm leads Rallye Monte Carlo in dream start for Ford BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen made a sensational debut in the new Focus RS World Rally Car to lead the Rallye Monte Carlo after today's opening leg.
Gronholm leads Rallye Monte Carlo in dream start for Ford
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen made a sensational debut in the new Focus RS World Rally Car to lead the Rallye Monte Carlo after today's opening leg. The Finns lead by 1min 23.7sec on their first appearance with the Ford squad after a demanding day's driving over slushy and icy mountain roads in the French Alps
This opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship is the first full competitive outing for the new Focus RS WRC. Gronholm posted fastest time on two of the day's five speed tests in the mountains north-west of Monaco, and a consistently fast pace through the remaining special stages propelled him to the top of the leaderboard on the three-day rally.
Team-mates and fellow countrymen Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are 10th in a second BP Ultimate and Castrol-branded Focus RS after a more difficult day. A poor tyre choice this morning and a handbrake problem on the hairpin-lined roads this afternoon cost time on a rally in which Hirvonen has limited previous experience.
After last night's start ceremony in Monte Carlo's illuminated and famous Casino Square, the action switched this morning to the bleak and inhospitable mountains to the north. Much of the heavy snow which covered the roads during the recce had melted. But freezing temperatures last night ensured the morning stages were treacherously icy and slushy. As temperatures climbed, the afternoon conditions eased but the wet roads and icy patches still demanded plenty of caution.
Drivers faced two identical groups of three stages north of the Var river covering 118.10km. However, just 11 cars tackled the opening stage after a truck and a bus inadvertently blocked the approach road to the start and the remaining competitors were unable to squeeze past. They returned directly to the service park and were awarded notional times. The first 11 cars tackled the second stage but the third test was cancelled to avoid further timing difficulties.
Tyre choice this morning was agonisingly difficult. Gronholm opted for BFGoodrich's winter tyre with no studs for the first group. He spun early in the first stage and dropped about 25 seconds but proved he is a fast learner on the following 13.60km test from Guillaumes to Valberg and sped to quickest time to climb to third overall.
"I spun about 3km after the start of the first stage on a right hand corner," said Gronholm. "It was marked in my pace notes as 'really slippery' but it was really, really, really slippery. The car ended facing the way I had come. I stalled the engine a couple of times trying to manoeuvre it back in the right direction. It was difficult to make our tyre choice and maybe we should have opted for half studs. My tyres would have been good for stage three but unfortunately we didn't find out."
The 37-year-old Finn opted for soft compound dry weather rubber this afternoon. He climbed to second on the opening test and powered into the lead on the final stage with his second stage victory - by a massive 15.5sec. "It's fantastic to be leading and the Focus has been perfect all day," he added. "I drove a little too carefully sometimes but conditions were terrible and it was hard to judge the correct speed. I've not enjoyed the day but I am enjoying leading. The big thing for the rest of the weekend will be tyre choice. There is slush, ice, wet asphalt and dry asphalt and it is so hard to decide what is the right option."
Hirvonen opted for dry weather rubber this morning and paid the penalty. He was 10th on the opening stage and 11th on the next to return to service in 10th. "The conditions changed totally between my safety note crew driving the stage early this morning and me starting," he admitted. "All the ice had turned to slush and I just did not know what the conditions were like around the next corner. I didn't push because I couldn't trust my notes and I didn't want to make any mistakes."
Twenty-five-year-old Hirvonen was fourth fastest on the afternoon's opening stage. However, a handbrake sensor problem on the last test cost more than a minute. "It was a twisty stage and I needed the handbrake at hairpins. But when I pulled on it the car went into launch control mode and activated the clutch. It meant they were controlling the car and not me! The engine stalled and when I restarted it the system released itself. It happened about five times," he explained.
News from our Rivals
World champion Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) built up a 1min 16.4sec lead before crashing into retirement 5km after the start of the final stage. It is not yet known whether he will restart tomorrow under SupeRally regulations. If so, he will be ninth. A second world champion to retire was Petter Solberg (Subaru). The Norwegian lost a minute after selecting slick tyres this morning. He climbed back to seventh before an oil leak in the final stage irreparably damaged his car's engine. Team-mate Chris Atkinson excelled on his first Rallye Monte Carlo appearance to hold second, ahead of Toni Gardemeister (Peugeot). Gilles Panizzi (Skoda) held second midway through the leg but poor handling dropped him to fourth. Also out was Gig Galli (Mitsubishi) who retired from fourth in stage four with a broken steering arm after hitting a stone.
The second leg is the longest of the rally and is primarily based to the south of the Var river. As today, it comprises two groups of three stages which are split by a return to the Monaco service. It includes a test which has not been used for 14 years and ends with the first of three passes over the famous Col de Turini. Drivers leave Monaco at 06.00 and return for the overnight halt at 18.56.