Gronholm masters Finland's jumps to strengthen rally lead BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen dominated today's second leg of Rally Finland to strengthen their lead. The Finns, chasing their sixth victory here in...
Gronholm masters Finland's jumps to strengthen rally lead
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen dominated today's second leg of Rally Finland to strengthen their lead. The Finns, chasing their sixth victory here in seven years, were fastest on seven of the eight speed tests in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to return to the rally base in Jyvaskyla tonight with a lead of 67.8sec. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen reinforced their third position in a similar Focus RS.
The middle leg of this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship is regarded as the classic day of the season. Drivers reached breathtaking speeds on the smooth, wide gravel roads west of Jyvaskyla and gained incredible heights as the roller-coaster jumps launched the cars into the air. The eight special stages covered 146.49km and included two passes through the legendary Ouninpohja stages, accepted as the sport's ultimate test of skill and bravery.
In contrast to yesterday's rain, hot sunshine brought the spectators into the forests in their tens of thousands and 38-year-old Gronholm certainly provided them with something to cheer. He was fastest on the opening stage and when closest rival Sebastien Loeb broke a wheel on the third test, Gronholm's lead leapt to 44.8sec. He was able to reduce his speed, matching his pace according to Loeb's split times which were transmitted into the Focus RS during the stages.
Despite Gronholm's claims that he was taking things steadily, data obtained by Pi Research revealed remarkable figures. In one section of Ouninpohja, Gronholm's Focus RS was recorded as being flat out in top gear on the gravel roads for a single sustained burst of 46 seconds at an average speed of 171kph - the longest time ever logged by the BP-Ford team.
"I was lucky because I hit the same stone as Loeb and it wasn't marked in my pace notes," admitted Gronholm. "The corner has changed from previous years. There are now logs piled there so the driving line is different. I heard a big clunk when I hit the stone, which was the size of a football, but the mousse in the tyre kept it inflated and I was OK.
"There is still another day to go, so it's not finished yet. But it did get easier for us when Loeb lost time. I didn't go crazy after that and took the jumps quite steadily and I will do the same tomorrow. There were a few rocks in the road on the second pass through the stages and I concentrated on avoiding them. The stages have been so fast today and that's the way it is on this rally," he added.
Hirvonen was embroiled in a battle for third with Petter Solberg, but when the Norwegian crashed on the second stage, Hirvonen's grip on a podium place was increased. He posted consistent stage times to consolidate third, 34.7sec behind Loeb and almost two minutes ahead of Henning Solberg in fourth. Twenty-six-year-old Hirvonen, who lives in Jyvaskyla, delighted his home-town fans by leaping his Focus RS 47 metres over the famous jump in Ouninpohja this morning. The landing was so hard that it cracked the windscreen!
"When we heard Petter had crashed I really dropped my pace," he said. "But when you slow it's easy to lose rhythm and the one thing you need in Finland is a good rhythm. So I picked up the speed a little because it was easier to drive that way but I know that I need to finish and get the points for the team, so it wasn't a big attack. I tried to push Loeb but he controlled his speed well.
"I have watched this rally from the sidelines all my life and I can't wait for tomorrow. If it ends like this it would be a dream come true to take a podium finish in my home town. But there is still a day to go so I mustn't get excited just yet. The best thing a driver can do in a WRC car is to fly sideways over those jumps. I didn't beat the 'jump record' though so I need to make sure I do that next year!" he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said it was 'a perfect day'. "Both cars and both drivers worked faultlessly. The pressure came off Marcus and Mikko when Loeb lost time and Solberg crashed. We were concerned about the long 40km stage this evening because it's the most difficult test of the rally but we came through with no problems and we're in a strong position," he said.
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Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) won the second stage but his challenge suffered a huge blow on the next stage in Ouninpohja. The Frenchman hit a huge rock which threw his car onto two wheels and broke the front left wheel. He dropped more than 30sec. Petter Solberg (Subaru), fourth after the opening leg, crashed heavily just 700m after the start of the first Ouninpohja test and retired. His car is too badly damaged to restart tomorrow. His demise allowed brother Henning (Peugeot) into fourth, although the Norwegian struggled with brake problems all day. Dani Sordo (Citroen) climbed to fifth before he crashed heavily on the second pass through Ouninpohja. He will not restart tomorrow. That allowed Gigi Galli (Peugeot) to move to fifth with Janne Tuohino (Citroen) rounding off the top six. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) broke his gearbox in the opening stage and had to limp through all three morning stages, losing more than 11 minutes. Then his car's power steering broke and he dropped a further two minutes on the penultimate stage. He lies 13th.
The final day is the shortest of the rally, comprising just two identical loops of two stages west of Jyvaskyla. However, drivers will have no opportunity for service after the 10-minute slot before leaving the city at the restart. The leg begins at 08.30 and drivers return to the city for the finish ceremony at 14.54 after 60.22km of competition.