BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan MoznÃ½ produced strong performances on today's opening leg of Rally Argentina. Gardemeister's consistent pace earned fourth in his Ford...
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Mozný produced strong performances on today's opening leg of Rally Argentina. Gardemeister's consistent pace earned fourth in his Ford Focus RS World Rally Car while Kresta's risk-free strategy on his Argentine debut was rewarded with 11th in a similar car.
The opening leg began last night with two spectacular speed tests at the Pro-Racing motorsport complex, near the rally base of Villa Carlos Paz in central Argentina. The head-to-head racing attracted a capacity 40,000 crowd but the action began in earnest today when competitors covered two loops of four gravel special stages in the Punilla Valley, north of the town. The 162.34km of competition covered almost half the rally's 340.82km of action.
The hot, dry weather so prevalent earlier in the week was a distant memory. Heavy overnight rain ensured a dreary day and soft compound Michelin tyres were the choice of the BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers all leg. Temperatures in the opening special stages struggled to reach 5C and low cloud was an additional hazard. However, the damp weather packed together the loose stones on the road and ensured conditions were not as slippery as expected for the early starters.
Gardemeister and Honkanen, who were eighth in their Castrol-branded Focus RS after last night's tests, were remarkably consistent today. They posted top six times on all eight stages, climbing to fourth on the third stage this morning and withstanding the challenge of Harri Rovanpera and Markko Martin to maintain their position tonight. They are 8.1sec ahead of Rovanpera.
"It wasn't an easy morning," admitted 30-year-old Gardemeister. "I pushed hard but the times weren't as good as I hoped. I hit a stone on stage four and bent a steering arm but that wasn't a big problem. However, I was lucky on the next stage when I almost slid off the road on a fifth gear corner. I slid wide several times. It was quite muddy in places after last night's rain but the roads dried in the strong wind as the day went on.
"I drove flat out this afternoon. I was again a little wide on a few occasions but only once did I hit a bank and that didn't cause any troubles. I had one heavy landing over a jump when the back of the car reared up. It was a little noisy afterwards but I don't think it's anything serious. I've enjoyed the battle with Harri and Markko and that will continue on the second leg, I think. Tomorrow morning's stages are all new for me so it won't be easy," he added.
BP-Ford team-mates Kresta and Mozný remained faithful to their strategy of a cautious, risk-free policy. The Czechs concentrated on learning the characteristics of the pampas tracks. After starting the day in 15th, they climbed to 10th on the penultimate test before losing a place in the final few kilometres of the day. They are just 4.9sec behind Xavi Pons.
"Our tyre choice this morning was good but this afternoon I made a mistake and chose rubber that was too soft," said 29-year-old Kresta. "Because I've not driven here before I didn't know what the best choice would be. I had a good feeling with the Focus all day and it's a shame I couldn't make the most of that this afternoon because of my tyre choice. I've driven carefully because it's a difficult rally for a newcomer.
"The roads have a hard base beneath the gravel so they were slippery this morning and some parts were rough and rutted on the repeat run this afternoon. Tomorrow morning's stages are much faster so I will try to drive flat out," added Kresta.
Co-driver Mozný is wearing protective strapping under his racesuit to support his ribs. They were badly bruised when Kresta crashed in New Zealand in April and the injury flared up again on the opening day of the Acropolis Rally of Greece last month. "I've had no troubles today. I could feel the injury a little on the final stage but it wasn't a problem," he said.
Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr, driving a privately-entered Focus RS, are 12th, 25.7sec behind Kresta. The German driver suffered understeer problems this morning but changes to his car's set up cured that. However, he broke a rear left anti-roll bar this afternoon. Argentines Luis Perez Companc and Jose Maria Volta are 14th in another M-Sport run Focus RS.
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Petter Solberg (Subaru) led after last night's super special stages and maintained a narrow advantage over the opening two tests this morning. But then Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) moved ahead, stretching his lead with fastest time over the final three stages to end the leg 31.3sec ahead of the Norwegian. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) was a lonely third all day, the Finn frustrated at not being able to match the pace of his rivals ahead. Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) held fourth early on but a spin and a faulty handbrake cost two places. However, he moved ahead of Markko Martin (Peugeot) this afternoon to consolidate fifth. Gigi Galli (Mitsubishi) set a strong pace and held fourth until retiring on the fifth stage. He initially stopped with broken front right suspension but made repairs and continued. However, the car then lost drive to one wheel and he retired. Jani Paasonen (Skoda) also retired after hitting a rock in the same stage and breaking his car's front left suspension. He will not re-start tomorrow. Team-mate Armin Schwarz lies 20th after limping through the afternoon stages with a broken damper mount.