Markko Martin and Michael Park lead Spain's Rally Catalunya in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after today's second leg. The BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers, lying second after the opening day, moved to the top of the leaderboard early this morning. They controlled the advantage over their rivals to end the longest leg of this three-day event with a 39.7sec lead.
They won two of today's seven speed tests in their Castrol-branded Focus RS, taking the team's tally to six out of 13. Only once was the Focus RS outside the top two times.
Today's action was again centred on the smooth asphalt mountain roads north of Barcelona. Drivers were scheduled to tackle 162.88km of competition. However, the sheer volume of spectators eager to see this 15th, and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship, forced organisers to cancel the longest special stage for safety reasons.
For the second consecutive day, the weather proved the forecasters wrong. Rain was expected this afternoon but it stayed away, ensuring Michelin's medium compound dry weather tyres were the perfect choice for the fast and open roads.
Martin left the rally base in Lloret de Mar this morning just 2.0sec behind Sebastien Loeb. But when Loeb retired after the opening speed test, the 28-year-old Estonian was left with a comfortable advantage. He took no risks and ignored the time-saving tactic of cutting across the rough areas on the inside of bends to minimise the chance of damaging the Focus RS.
"There were some really big cuts in the corners and I'm not a big fan of those," he said. "It's possible to gain time by taking big cuts through the bends, but if the car hits something then that can be rally over. It was quite slippery in places. Some sections had a lot of grass on the road where previous cars had cut the corners and dragged it onto the driving line.
"I'm not really attacking, just driving safely to keep ahead of those behind us and I would have adopted a different pace if Loeb was 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. It has been dry all leg which made tyre selection easier. Sunshine would be good tomorrow. I don't want mixed conditions because then there is the risk of making a mistake with tyre choice," added Martin.
Martin's judgement of the pace has relied heavily on input from the BP-Ford team. Personnel in the team's control room kept track of his rivals' split times during the tests. They sent the information to co-driver Park during the stages via digital display, allowing the crew to modify their pace as necessary. "It worked really well," said Martin. "We have been able to speed up or ease our pace as required, and that means I've not had to take unnecessary risks."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the day. "Markko has driven at a constant pace all day and done an excellent job. We've changed the turbo on his car tonight purely as a precaution and otherwise it has been a routine service. The weather may be inconsistent tomorrow, as showers are forecast, and that would make tyre selection difficult. But we're in a strong position and so long as we don't make any bad tyre choices, then we should be OK," he said.
News from our Rivals
Overnight leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was fastest on the opening stage. However, he hit a rock near the finish of the stage and the impact cracked the oil sump, forcing him to retire on the liaison section to the next stage. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) posted three fastest times to hold second, ahead of fans' favourite Carlos Sainz (Citroen), who was happy the long stage was cancelled as he was struggling with brake problems. Ex-Formula 1 test driver Stephane Sarrazin is an excellent fourth on only his third WRC event, having moved ahead of Petter Solberg (Subaru) when the Norwegian spun near the start of stage 12. Dani Sola (Mitsubishi) lost time with a spin on the previous stage but holds sixth, ahead of team-mate Gigi Galli, whose decision to alter the anti-roll bar settings improved his car's handling.