Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park claimed the outright lead in the FIA World Rally Championship today after finishing third in a dramatic Rally New Zealand. The podium finish in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car moved...
Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park claimed the outright lead in the FIA World Rally Championship today after finishing third in a dramatic Rally New Zealand. The podium finish in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car moved them one point clear at the top of the standings after four of the 16 rounds. Ford retained the lead in the manufacturers' series with a double points haul from Martin and team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot.
Martin and Park started the four-day Auckland-based rally as joint leaders of the championship after victory in Mexico last month. Debuting the 2004 version of the Focus RS WRC, they won three of the 23 sweeping gravel speed tests on North Island, covering 395.50km. Duval, who finished 18th after going off the road this morning, won another to seal a successful debut for the new car.
Today's final leg was based around the west coast town of Raglan, south of Auckland, and comprised two identical loops of three special stages covering 114.74km. In contrast to the previous two days of glorious sunshine, heavy clouds and the threat of rain hung over the region and conditions under the trees this morning were damp.
Martin started the day in third and was content to hold onto that until the nature of the rally turned dramatically on the classic Whaanga Coast speed test, one of the most picturesque in the championship. Leader Petter Solberg was one of four top drivers, including Duval, to be caught out by a tricky right-hand bend 9km from the finish. He hit a rock, spun and dropped 30 seconds and the drivers returned to service in Raglan with Martin still third, but only 13.2sec from the lead.
New leader Marcus Gronholm then spun near the start of the penultimate test and he and Martin began the final stage, a second pass through Whaanga Coast, tied for second. However, Gronholm was the faster and Martin was delighted to settle for third in his Castrol-supported Focus RS.
"A podium result is always a good one so I'm happy after what has been an interesting weekend," he said. "I think we had a bad Friday, a good Saturday and an average Sunday and at the end of it all we're leading the world championship, so it's been a good weekend's work. Had we known that Petter was going to have a problem this morning then we would have pushed harder, but we didn't want to take risks when we were in a safe third.
"Our only problem today came on the penultimate stage when the car hit a bank on one side of the road during a very fast section and bounced across the track to hit the bank on the opposite side. It was a proper fifth gear incident, but we survived," added Martin.
Ford BP team-mates Duval and Prevot preserved their overnight seventh position through the opening two stages, but then hit a rock and went off the road into a field in Whaanga Coast. The impact broke a steering arm on the Focus RS and Duval and Prevot tried to make repairs.
They removed the right front wheel before replacing it and trying to drive back onto the road. But there was no steering at all so they removed the wheel again and drove to the end of the stage with just three wheels on the Focus RS, dropping about 18 minutes. Ford BP mechanics did a superb job in replacing the front cross-member, track control arm, compression strut, sump guard and wheel hub assembly in the following 20 minute service without time penalties.
The Belgians were still in a position to score points for Ford so they cruised through the final stages. "I didn't expect to make the same kind of stage times as Carlos Sainz on a rally that I've only started once before," said 23-year-old Duval. "It's been a good weekend and I've made a lot of progress. The Focus RS has been fantastic all weekend and my only problem came this morning, and that was my fault. My pace notes should be good for the future because we've done a lot of work with them."
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted that the team are now clear leaders in both championships. "We've not won the rally but Ford still has a strong lead in the manufacturers' championship and Markko is on his own at the head of the drivers' series, which is a great position in which to be. Markko lost a lot of ground on Friday but recovered well yesterday. I was concerned when Francois went off this morning but he responded well, got the car back to service and earned a point. It's a great debut for the new Focus RS. We had no reliability problems and the car was as fast as we thought it would be," he said.
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The rally had four different leaders and two changes of leader today. Petter Solberg (Subaru), in front since leg one, lost his lead when he hit a rock, spun and damaged his car's power steering on the third stage. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot), who recovered superbly from a day one roll, moved into a one second lead but that disappeared when he spun on the penultimate stage. He started the last test 16.3sec behind the Norwegian but despite a valiant bid to close the margin, Solberg triumphed by 5.9sec. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) took fourth when Harri Rovanpera (Peugeot) spun at the same point as Duval and Solberg. Seventh-placed Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) was the fourth driver to fall foul of the bend when he hit the rock and damaged his car's power steering. Privately-entered Daniel Carlsson claimed the final drivers' point despite going off for six minutes on the last stage.