Martin and Park thrill fans to lead Rally Finland for Ford Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park led the Rally Finland tonight after a thrilling daylong battle with defending world champion Marcus Gronholm that delighted...
Martin and Park thrill fans to lead Rally Finland for Ford
Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park led the Rally Finland tonight after a thrilling daylong battle with defending world champion Marcus Gronholm that delighted the thousands of Estonian fans who packed into the forests to cheer on their newest sporting hero. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car ended the first full day of competition 2.6 seconds ahead of its Finnish rival, chasing his fourth consecutive victory on roads he knows so well.
Martin and Park, bidding to become only the third non-Nordic pairing to win this most spectacular round of the championship, posted six fastest times from the 10 speed tests during the opening leg north of the rally base in Jyvaskyla as the lead swung back and forth between the duelling duo. Twenty-seven-year-old Martin and Gronholm were never separated by more than 4.1sec during the 140.36km of special stages.
The roads here are among the most specialised in the championship. Super-smooth, fast and flowing, they contain massive jumps which see cars flying through the air almost as often as they are on the ground. Precision driving, accurate pace notes and bravery are crucial as the many blind crests often hide bends on the landing side and positioning the car accurately before the jump is all important to maintain the right driving line.
Bright sunshine greeted the first full day of competition following last night's superspecial stage but the damp early morning roads became soaked when torrential rain fell midway through the leg. However, the weather failed to put off the fervent Estonian fans. An estimated 10,000 have made the 80km journey across the Baltic Sea from Tallinn to Helsinki before heading north to Jyvaskyla. The stages have been lined with the blue, black and white Estonian flag, as the singing fans sounded air horns in further support for Martin.
They had much to cheer as he extended his overnight lead before losing a few seconds when he bounced the Castrol-branded Focus RS in and out of a ditch in the short Valkola test. Gronholm took advantage to move ahead for four stages but Martin retaliated through the closing tests to regain pole position on the penultimate stage.
"It's been a tremendous battle all day and I'm happy to be leading tonight," said Martin. "On occasions we were driving beyond the limit and we had a couple of near-misses but we got away with them. We've used the same pattern of Michelin tyre all day and it has worked well - it was a good choice. Tomorrow we'll try to keep the same good feeling in the car. Our tactics will again be to drive flat out, we have no choice if we want to win.
"It's fantastic to have so much support. The crowds in the service park are amazing and I'm sure it's the same on the stages but I'm concentrating so hard that I don't see all the flags," added Martin.
Team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot are 15th after a day of learning in their similar Focus RS. The 22-year-old Belgian driver has little experience of the Finnish stages in a World Rally Car and is under firm orders to finish the rally in order to increase that. However, Duval admitted he was over-cautious this morning, often braking too early as he tried to find a speed with which he felt comfortable.
"I can't believe how fast these roads are," said Duval. "The problem is that you can't see the corners as they're masked by crests or jumps and it's difficult to find the line. Without the line you just can't drive as fast as you want to. Tomorrow we must run as first car through the stages and this rally is difficult enough without having to do that on slippery, loose gravel." Privately-entered Finns Janne Tuohino and Jukka Aho used their local knowledge to good advantage to end the leg in ninth in a 2002-specification Focus RS. They are two places ahead of Ford's third nominated drivers, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, driving a similar M-Sport run Focus RS.
Oversteer cost Hirvonen time this morning and the 23-year-old Finn also had trouble this afternoon with his car's electronic throttle system which caused the throttle to stick open briefly. However, his most bizarre incident came on the Killeri superspecial stage this evening. Hirvonen was racing head-to-head with Richard Burns, and as the Englishman's car slid round the gravel oval, it kicked up a stream of loose gravel which flew through Hirvonen's open window and into his face! "I'm in a better position tonight than I thought I would be," he admitted. "We had a bad morning but a good afternoon so I'm happy. Tomorrow I hope we can go faster still and move into the top 10."
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson described the performance of Martin, Park and the Focus RS as 'fantastic'. "I always thought Markko would be in the top two or three positions tonight. He has set six fastest times and it's incredible that a driver can win so many stages and still only have a 2.6sec lead. It shows how close this rally will be," said Wilson.
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Behind the fight for the lead, championship leader Richard Burns (Peugeot) established himself in third and never came under serious threat. Colin McRae (Citroen), Petter Solberg (Subaru) and Carlos Sainz (Citroen) enjoyed a superb battle for fourth, the Scot maintaining the upper hand for most of the day with the Spaniard narrowing the gap as the leg progressed. Tonight just 7.4sec covered the trio. Five-time rally winner Tommi Makinen (Subaru) had a mixed day after a tyre vibration and intercom failure and he is eighth. Fellow Finn Harri Rovanpera hit a rock in the first stage and broke his car's front right suspension. He made repairs and limped back to service but the 24 minutes lost ruined his chances. The only major retirement was Didier Auriol (Skoda) who withdrew before the re-start this morning with a badly inflamed tendon in his left shoulder.
Saturday's leg in the Rally Finland is one of the classic days in the sport's calendar. The route takes competitors west of Jyvaskyla for seven more stages covering 167.92km, clustered around the town of Jamsa. The day includes two runs at the awesome 33.24km Ouninpohja, a roller-coaster stage full of sixth gear jumps and flowing bends, and the daunting Moksi-Leustu, at 40.96km the longest test of the rally and another classic. It's the longest leg of the event, with the day starting at 06.00 and not ending until 19.48.