Radstrom heads Ford Martini charge in Finland
The Ford Martini World Rally team finished the opening day of Rally Finland by storming to first and second fastest times around the final special stage before huge crowds at the Jyvaskyla city centre Hippos super special.
Ford's Swedish ace Thomas Radstrom led home team mate Colin McRae by just half a second as the two Focus WRC cars finished Leg 1 of this 10th round of the FIA World Championship comfortably inside the top 10 and well placed to capitalise on the lessons learned today.
During his charge to fourth place overall, Radstrom also set fastest time on the 10.2 kms Tiilimaa stage. Later he confessed: "I am a bit surprised to be so far up the leader board, but my Focus today was certainly fantastic and I feel that I've been driving comfortably. For me the handling was exactly right and I could attack each stage. Although today's stages are typical of Finland, I like tomorrow's stages more. They have a very different character, with long stretches flat out in fifth or sixth gear. I am familiar with them, so I'm looking forward to pushing hard on Leg 2."
After hitting a rock on stage 1 which stalled the engine momentarily, McRae battled with suspension settings which felt good in testing but proved slightly too soft on event. "It's been a difficult day," commented the 31-year old Scotsman. "I've not been totally happy with the springs. We made more modifications before the super special stage and posted second fastest time, but we won't know until tomorrow if those changes will work well on the longer forest tracks."
For the first time on a World Rally, Ford is running a third Focus car for young rising star Petter Solberg. He finished the day a highly creditable 14th overall - driving on a mission to look and learn for future outings in Finland. "This rally is a big education for me, learning all the bumps and jumps for next year," explained the Norwegian. "We have been concentrating on making detailed amendments to our pace notes. We haven't really 'flown' the Focus over the big leaps and my arms were aching terribly after tackling SS3 without power steering."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson feels tomorrow will be the crucial leg of this three-day event, one of the world's fastest rallies. "Today has just been a high speed 'warm-up' for the big occasion," commented Wilson. "There is absolutely no substitute for experience here, and Colin doesn't have a great deal of that because he has retired early several times.
"Thomas set a fastest time early on when everyone was attacking hard which is very encouraging, but some drivers don't want to be first on the road for Leg 2 and that is evident by their stage times at the end of the day," he added.
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Finn Marcus Gronholm, driving the Peugeot 206 on only its third world championship rally, maintained the marque's record of leading every event it has entered with the new car and he held top spot. Subaru pair Juha Kankkunen and Richard Burns enjoyed a good day on the elder driver's home territory, taking three fastest stage times between them and coming home in second and third respectively - 3.6 sec clear of Rådstrom. Toyota pair Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol, both former winners of the Rally Finland, suffered from running second and third on the road, where loose gravel made conditions more slippy than for later runners. Sainz incurred a 10 sec penalty for jumping the start of the final stage, dropping from fifth to eighth. Championship leader Tommi Makinen (Mitsubishi) ran in the top three for much of the day before slipping to fifth while team-mate Freddy Loix ended 16th and was fortunate to escape a brush with a ditch at 180kph on stage 5. Harri Rovanpera, who lives in the rally's host city, and Toni Gardemeister gave the new Seat Cordoba its world championship debut, Rovanpera lying eighth and his colleague 13th. Austrian ace Armin Schwarz (Skoda) retired after an accident on the first stage. Local hero and national rally champion Pasi Hagstrom (Toyota) showed early promise before he suffered transmission failure.
Surviving competitors look forward to more than 14 hours on the road as Leg 2 of the fastest rally in the world takes cars on a 610 kms loop through 10 special stages, including the daunting 34 kms of Ouninpohja - the longest of the event at 15.30. The first car leaves Jyvaskyla at 06.30 and returns to parc ferme at 21.00 after tackling the town centre Hippos super special twice at the end of the day.
Nicky Grist: "There are many key stages tomorrow. Stages 9 and 15 will be difficult because they are used twice and the surface may deteriorate, while stages 10 and 14 are very long and exceptionally tough. In all truth, all tomorrow's stages are 'classics' and none can be treated lightly."
Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 42min 01.5sec 2. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 42min 05.3sec 3. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 42min 07.5sec 4. T Radstrom/ F Gallagher S Ford Focus 42min 11.1sec 5. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 42min 19.8sec 6. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Toyota Corolla 42min 24.9sec 7. H Rovanpera/R Pietilainen FIN Seat Cordoba 42min 25.0sec 8. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 42min 25.1sec 9. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 42min 34.6sec 10 S Lindholm/J Aho FIN Ford Escort 42min 51.4sec --------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------- 15 P Solberg/P Mills N Ford Focus 43min 51.2sec