McRae flies the Ford Martini colours in Finland
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist powered their Ford Focus from ninth place to fourth position during 14 hours of high dramas as the Neste Rally Finland lived up to its reputation as one of the world's toughest 'classic' rallies. The duo increased their pace through the 10 stages of the second Leg to set fastest time on each of the final three tests and put the leading Focus in a great position for tomorrow.
Once again the day ended before a huge crowd with the Ford Martini World Rally team drivers storming to first and second fastest times at the Hippos, but throughout the day McRae and Thomas Radstrom's fortunes varied widely.
Virtually doubling his limited experience of the championship's most specialised rally, Colin blended speed with discretion to gain detailed knowledge of the countless jumps - as well as places. "I've been feeling better about this event and my car all day," enthused McRae. "The Focus has been working really well on its altered suspension settings and it's been my own lack of experience on these roads which has cost the odd second here and there. I've learned a lot and we are in a great position for tomorrow. I'm told the stages on Leg 3 are different again, but in Finland everything is trees and water - so no change there then."
Ford's Swedish ace Thomas Radstrom was fourth overnight but was unable to maintain his earlier pace and later slid off on the event's toughest stage. "Obviously it has been a disappointing day for me," confessed Radstrom. "It was bad luck when we went off - the stages are so fast and it can happen so easily. Stage 14 is so demanding you have to be centimetre perfect, and we weren't."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson is both pleased and troubled by today's events. "Colin has driven with great maturity today," commented Malcolm, "gaining confidence in the Focus as the day's stages unfolded. We'd be delighted if he can maintain his fourth place until the finish. Gronholm is close behind, so Colin must still push hard but also remember the importance for the whole team of finishing this event. The more mileage the better for him and for our understanding of the car. Thomas has had a difficult day and the team can't really understand how he was so competitive yesterday but unable to repeat that form today. It's a mystery to us all and a big disappointment that he went off this afternoon."
Young Petter Solberg is treating the rally as a fast educational tour in the third Ford Focus - making pace notes for a serious attack next year. "It's certainly been an eventful day for us. With the electrical problem the car wasn't perfect, but the engineers tell me it will be for tomorrow. The whole rally has been a great experience, especially the longest stage which I feared beforehand but liked a lot once we were tackling its big jumps."
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Overnight leader Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) started with a fastest stage time on the opening stage and ran in the top four until delayed with gear selection problems. Both the other 206 cars hit trouble - Francois Delecour hindered by transmissions maladies and Panizzi by turbo failure. Spanish star Carlos Sainz (Toyota) drove sensationally to score four fastest stage times with his Corolla and leap from 8th to 2nd during the day. In striking contrast Didier Auriol battled all day with an ill-handling car that defeated all attempts at a cure. The Subaru duo of Juha Kankkunen and Richard Burns both put in fine drives, with Juha taking the lead on stage 10, setting fastest time on SS14 and holding the overnight lead. Mitsubishi suffered on the event's longest stage, when first championship leader and local hero Tommi Makinen lost all drive in his Lancer and then team mate Loix rolled but continued after losing several minutes. The Seat Cordoba team enjoyed good fortune with Harri Rovanpera running strongly and Toni Gardemeister climbing into the top 10 despite losing time with several spins. The sole remaining Skoda of Triner has not yet featured in the top 10.
During today 20 cars retired, leaving 87 competitors to take on the final challenge of Leg 3. The loop takes cars through six special stages, including twice around the 28 kms Lempaa forest - the longest of the day. The first car leaves Jyvaskyla at 06.20 and returns to parc ferme at 17.00 after completing the final 'live tv' stage over 7 kms at Ruuhimaki just East of the host city at 15.00.
Nicky Grist: "The important stages tomorrow are 19 and 21 - the 28 kms Lempaa forest - because it is used twice so the surface may deteriorate after the first run. It won't be a disadvantage for us because it will be much the same for everyone, but it may be unpleasant. The 'live-tv' stage is also crucial as extra points can be gained by doing well on this final test.
Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 2h 23min 13.7sec 2. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 2h 23min 23.7sec 3. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 2h 23min 29.7sec 4. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 2h 24min 11.0sec 5. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 2h 24min 30.9sec 6. H Rovanpera/R Pietilainen FIN Seat Cordoba 2h 25min 00.5sec 7. S Lindholm/J Aho FIN Ford Escort 2h 26min 16.0sec 8. T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Seat Cordoba 2h 26min 18.5sec 9. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Toyota Corolla 2h 26min 28.0sec 10. J Tuohino/M Anttila FIN Ford Escort 2h 29min 23.3sec --------------------------------------------------------------------------- -------------------------------------------- 16. P Solberg/P Mills N Ford Focus 2h 33min 38.8sec 22. T Radstrom/F Gallagher S Ford Focus 2h 36min 10.2sec