Martin powers Focus into three-car fight for honours Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park will start tomorrow's third and final leg of the Rally New Zealand in the midst of a three-way battle at the head of the leaderboard...
Martin powers Focus into three-car fight for honours
Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park will start tomorrow's third and final leg of the Rally New Zealand in the midst of a three-way battle at the head of the leaderboard after today's thrilling second leg. They returned to Auckland tonight in third place in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after having won two of the day's eight speed tests during a fierce fight for supremacy over the sweeping gravel roads of the North Island.
Team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot lie seventh in their similar Focus RS after a second day of glorious sunshine in the Northland district provided perfect conditions for this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Cars sprayed up huge plumes of dust as they wound their way through the lush green countryside during the day's 138.84km of competition, split between two identical loops of four speed tests close to the town of Paparoa.
Martin and Park, who started this morning in fourth just 0.2sec behind Marcus Gronholm, were in superb form in their Castrol-backed Focus RS through the opening loop of special stages. The 28-year-old Estonian driver was second fastest on the first two tests before going quickest through the next two to move into second.
He was second fastest on each of the next three stages to reduce the gap further to leader Petter Solberg, but dropped a handful of seconds in blinding sunshine on the last test to end the day 24.2sec behind Solberg and 4.7sec from Gronholm.
"We've had a much better day than yesterday," said Martin. "I've been driving like hell to keep the pace at the level I need to, but I'm back with the leaders now, so that's good. The car has been great but the competition has been very strong. My road position was better than yesterday, the stages were much cleaner and I think that, generally, everything has clicked into place. Maybe I just prefer Saturdays!
"Our only problem was on the final stage. The sun was low and because of my low seating position in the car, I could not see properly. Before the stage we put two more rows of tape across the top of the windscreen and on my helmet to try to block out the sun, but it didn't help so much. Because the roads are so cambered, I couldn't see out of the corners.
"A win here is probably unrealistic, but not impossible, after we made life difficult by losing so much time yesterday. But a podium is in sight. Tomorrow's stages are quite tricky and I've only driven them once before, in 2002, so I don't remember them that well. That will give Marcus an advantage," he added.
Duval and Prevot, who started this morning in sixth, extended their advantage over Carlos Sainz on the opening two tests. However, in the third stage the Belgians lost time in the dust of Antony Warmbold's car. Warmbold stopped with a throttle problem and re-started just in front of Duval, leaving the Ford BP driver a frustrating journey to the end of the stage as he was unable to get close enough to the German to pass. The incident cost Duval about 25 seconds and dropped him behind Sainz into seventh.
"After 2km we caught Antony and as he didn't know I was there, I had to sit behind until the finish," said Duval. "I went off the road two or three times in the dust but I was lucky the stage was only 11km. This afternoon it wasn't necessary to take risks so I drove sensibly and carefully to ensure I stayed on the road. I felt confident and the stages were good and fast."
Duval drove the final three stages with a right-sided tyre fitted to the rear left of the Focus RS. A stone knocked the valve cap from the rear left tyre during the first stage after service and when the Belgians examined the rubber at the end of the stage they discovered there was no pressure in it. They quickly fitted the spare wheel but the car's balance was disturbed and the handling was unpredictable throughout the final three tests.
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson was happy with the team's progress. "Today has shown that the 2004 Focus RS is as good as we hoped. Markko put yesterday's problems behind him and drove exceptionally well. He has pulled back time on Solberg and is in a good position tonight. Francois has again driven solidly and carefully, doing everything we have asked of him. Sadly, both drivers lack experience of tomorrow's stages. Markko has driven them once and Francois not at all but we will wait and see what arises," he said.
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Overnight leader Petter Solberg (Subaru) enjoyed a troublefree day but saw his lead cut back by the charging Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot), who set four fastest times, and Martin. However, quickest time on the final stage enabled Solberg to regain some of his lost time and he leads the Finn by 19.5sec. Gronholm lost some seconds this morning with a centre differential problem, which affected the car's handling. Former leader Harri Rovanpera (Peugeot) was unable to match his pace of yesterday and slipped to fourth. He is being reeled in by joint championship leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen), who suffered handling difficulties this morning but set a faster pace this afternoon. The Frenchman is followed by team-mate Carlos Sainz, who complained his car felt nervous for much of the day. Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) completed the manufacturer entries in eighth after a troublefree day.
The final leg returns to territory near Raglan on the west coast of North Island, south of Auckland, that was not used in 2003. It comprises two identical loops of three stages, covering 114.74km. The final test of each loop is the classic Whaanga Coast, one of the most spectacular stages in the entire championship, which runs alongside stunning coastal scenery for much of its route. Drivers leave Auckland at 05.00 and return for the ceremonial finish at 17.00.