Ford driver Markko Martin leads the ninth round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship -- the Neste Rally Finland -- after an electrifying battle with the Peugeot 206 of Marcus Gronholm. Martin led after last night's superspecial but Gronholm...
Ford driver Markko Martin leads the ninth round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship -- the Neste Rally Finland -- after an electrifying battle with the Peugeot 206 of Marcus Gronholm. Martin led after last night's superspecial but Gronholm grabbed the top spot on SS5 today. Yet Martin grabbed the lead back on the last proper stage of the day, before the spectator superspecial at Killeri. Gronholm won the final 2.06 kilometre test, but Martin, second, maintained a slender 2.6 seconds advantage over the reigning World Champion. Peugeot driver Richard Burns is now third, ahead of another tight battle between Citroen's Colin McRae, Subaru driver Petter Solberg, and the other Citroen of Carlos Sainz. Today's action was disputed over classic Rally Finland territory with intermittent rain that made driving conditions even more difficult.
Marlboro Peugeot Total
Technical: The Peugeots of Marcus Gronholm and Richard Burns ran without mechanical problems today, but Harri Rovanpera lost a lot of time after breaking his suspension on some rocks in SS2 and subsequently hitting a tree.
Sporting: Gronholm was involved in a day long-battle for the lead, but was forced to give best to Ford's Markko Martin at the end of the day. Burns started the day in seventh position but moved up to third after taking advantage of the rain, which he said minimised the disadvantage of running first on the road. Rovanpera ruled himself out of contention after his SS2 indiscretion.
Richard Burns said: "Considering our road position I'm quite happy with the way things have gone. The rain definitely helped us today and we're still in touch with the battle for the lead."
Marcus Gronholm said: "I wasn't very confident with my tyre choice in the middle loop of four stages. I was forced to miss the pre-event tyre test, so I was running on tyres I didn't really know for much of today. I always knew it would be a very close battle." Harri Rovanpera said: "On SS2 the suspension broke on some rocks which put us into a spin. I could fix it, but from then on the game was over. Now the rally is all about trying to set some fast times to show what we can do."
Technical: The three Citroens of Sebastien Loeb, Colin McRae, and Carlos Sainz ran without major mechanical problems today.
Sporting: McRae held fourth place from SS3 onwards, with a fast and consistent drive. An incorrect tyre choice on the middle loop of stages put him within the clutches of Subaru's Petter Solberg, but McRae fought back to claim fourth back on the final forest stage of the day. Carlos Sainz also improved his pace after adjusting his roll bar settings to eliminate oversteer and ends the day sixth. Sebastien Loeb spent much of the day getting to grips with the event which he does not have so much experience of. He currently lies in seventh.
Sebastien Loeb said: "I was trying to push but it's difficult. My team mates know this rally better than I do, so I'm aiming just to finish and score however many points I can."
Colin McRae said: "It's been a satisfactory start and the performance of the car has been good, as I expected. It's a pity we were on the wrong tyres during the middle loop of stages this afternoon, but these things happen."
Carlos Sainz said: "It's not been a bad start. I have been changing some things on the car and it's getting better."
Ford Motor Company
Technical: Markko Martin's Ford Focus RS WRC03 was reliable throughout the day. The sister car of Francois Duval also ran without trouble through leg one, as did the 2002 specification Focus of Mikko Hirvonen.
Sporting: Markko Martin was at the forefront of the battle for the lead all day and held a slender advantage over Marcus Gronholm after the final spectator superspecial. Francois Duval was under instructions to finish the rally in order to learn the roads and had a cautious day which resulted in 15th position after the spectator superspecial. Mikko Hirvonen felt he had an incorrect set-up this morning with oversteer and made some changes to improve the car. However, he thinks that further adjustments are still necessary.
Markko Martin said: "I've been driving over the limit on one or two occasions but flat-out is the only way I'm going to win this rally. There are thousands of Estonian fans here to support me but I'm concentrating so hard in the stages that I don't have time to see all their flags."
Francois Duval said: "It's been a difficult day because some of the stages are new to me but on the second run through this afternoon I've improved my times so that's encouraging."
Mikko Hirvonen said: "We lost some time this morning through oversteer, but it's been better since then and I'm really enjoying these jumps!"
555 Subaru World Rally Team
Technical: Both Subaru Impreza WRC2003s have run reliably throughout the day. Petter Solberg hit a rock on SS5 which bent his car's front crossmember and anti-roll bar, forcing him to disconnect it for the following two stages. Makinen's car had no mechanical problems although the Finn reported several bad vibrations from the anti-deflation mousse fitted to the tyres on several stages throughout the day. He also hit a rock eight kilometres into SS2 and lost a quarter of the wheel rim.
Sporting: Solberg is embroiled in a three-way battle for fourth place together with Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz, but has had an incident-free day apart from the bent roll bar. Makinen changed his damper settings for the middle group of four stages but later decided to revert to the original settings after failing to find a significant improvement. Solberg ended the superspecial in fifth place while Makinen held eighth position.
Petter Solberg said: "It's going well. I think tomorrow we'll have a good fight with Colin and Carlos. For a lot of the day it's been full throttle -- I couldn't get the pedal any closer to the floor. "
Tommi Makinen said: "I think we went the wrong way with some dampers earlier on and we've had some bad luck with tyre mousse vibration, but it's been a reliable day and there's a long way to go."
Hyundai World Rally Team
Technical: All three Hyundai Accent WRC"s of Freddy Loix, Armin Schwarz and Jussi Valimaki were reliable throughout the day.
Sporting: All three cars had a steady run today, but both Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix felt that the car was lacking stability in fast corners. Loix changed his suspension set-up after the opening group of stages and improved the car for the middle loop of stages. Schwarz had the same problems as his team mate and also found that his car's ride height was too low for the last group of stages which were a repeat of this morning's opening stages, causing his car to bottom out frequently. Jussi Valimaki had a good day and plans to attack tomorrow's stages which are more familiar to him.
Freddy Loix said: "Now we are going to push to the edge because the suspension is much better and the car feels sharper. Today has been challenging. We made good progress and although the shocks were going soft at the very end we were expecting that and now we know how to deal with it. "
Armin Schwarz said: "I am happy with the suspension because it's given me more feel and although we couldn't gain a lot on the last group of stages, I am sure we have a better set-up for tomorrow."
Jussi Valimaki said: "The car has felt great today and I have enjoyed driving it."
Technical: Didier Auriol did not start this morning as a result of an old shoulder injury. The remaining Fabia WRC of Toni Gardemeister stayed reliable throughout the day.
Sporting: Gardemeister headed into the final spectator superspecial in 12th position,, having had a consistent day. He set an eighth-fastest time on SS8 but was unlucky to be caught in the middle of a strong rain shower on SS7. The Finn experimented with suspension settings throughout the day and improved the car for the last loop of stages.
Toni Gardemeister said: "Generally I have been happy with the car today. When the roads were slippery it wasn't so easy to find traction because I didn't get my tyre choices absolutely correct but the balance of the car has been very good as usual."
Former World Champion Ari Vatanen has had an enjoyable day in his privateer Peugeot 206 WRC and has climbed to 19th overall overnight. "I need to slow down now as I don't want to finish in the top three and ruin my chances of a factory drive next year!" he joked. Marcus Gronholm's protégé, Juuso Pykalisto has ended the day 10th after a trouble-free opening day on his first rally in a 2003-specification Peugeot 206 WRC. The FIA Junior World Rally Championship is led by Renault Clio driver Brice Tirabassi, ahead of Suzuki driver Ville-Pertti Teuronen.