GrÃ¶nholm dances through NZ rain as Ford remains in charge BP-Ford World Rally Team remained firmly in control of Rally New Zealand during today's rainswept second leg. Marcus GrÃ¶nholm and Timo Rautiainen, who have led since the opening ...
Grönholm dances through NZ rain as Ford remains in charge
BP-Ford World Rally Team remained firmly in control of Rally New Zealand during today's rainswept second leg. Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen, who have led since the opening kilometre yesterday, extended their lead over team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen to 50.3sec with just one day remaining of this penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Both drivers are at the wheel of Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars.
After a clean sweep of fastest times on all five speed tests yesterday, Grönholm won three of today's six special stages and Hirvonen claimed one.
In contrast to yesterday's bright weather, today's conditions were treacherous. An overcast morning gave way to torrential rain for the opening loop of three speed tests north-west of the rally base of Hamilton, 130km south of Auckland. At times the rain was more than windscreen wipers could manage. When the rain eased a strong wind quickly dried the muddy gravel roads for the early afternoon action, before more driving rain returned to increase the challenge for competitors.
Two of the morning stages were new and the third had not been used since 1982. After lunchtime service the two classic 32km Te Akau stages preceded a final pass over the short Mystery Creek test, surrounding the service park. Competitors tackled 131.34km in total.
Grönholm restarted with a 31.2sec advantage over Hirvonen. Both opted for BFGoodrich's medium compound tyres as they left service but by the time they arrived at the opening special stage almost 2hr 30min later, it was pouring with rain. Grönholm was fastest on the opening 18.18km Port Waikato test, his sixth straight stage win. As conditions worsened and the rain became torrential, both Finns exercised caution through the following tests and they arrived in service split by 41.8sec.
Both opted for soft compound rubber this afternoon. Grönholm was fastest from Hirvonen through the opening test with the roles reversed on the next, before Grönholm ended with another win.
"It was a really wet morning and the stages weren't enjoyable to drive in those conditions, but there was no panic," said 38-year-old Grönholm. "The weather changed hugely after we made our tyre choice so a softer compound would have been better. We weren't under severe pressure and not having to drive flat out, so it wasn't a big problem but I have never seen mud like that here.
"This afternoon I had a few troubles with my windscreen wipers, which I had to keep switching on and off to get them to work. I'm happy with the way the day has gone and it's great to have Mikko up there at the top with me. I'm thinking about the finish and getting there without doing anything stupid but the Whaanga Coast stage is used twice tomorrow and that's long and difficult," he added.
Hirvonen, too, admitted he was thinking about tomorrow's finish. "With the gap behind me, I'm safe in second if I don't make any mistakes but there are six more stages tomorrow and still a lot of work to do," he said. "I had really good sideways grip this morning but we would have been better on a softer compound tyre in that rain. We knew it would rain this morning but it came earlier than we anticipated. There was so much rain that we had a lot of water coming in through the roof. I couldn't see properly for the final 10km of the last stage because the windscreen was misted.
"This afternoon's stages were just fantastic. I had the perfect tyre choice and despite the rain I really enjoyed those flowing roads. I wish every stage I drove was like those two," he added.
News from our Rivals
Dani Sordo (Citroen) steadily pulled away from Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) in their third place battle this morning as Stohl struggled on tyres that were too hard in the wet and mud. But on the opening test this afternoon the Austrian regained the third place he lost late yesterday and pulled clear. Xevi Pons (Citroen) in fifth was closing on both until he hit a rock and punctured a tyre on the first afternoon stage, dropping a few seconds. Petter Solberg (Subaru) maintained sixth despite intercom problems and a broken front driveshaft this morning. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) was in fine form this morning, winning two stages. However, the Australian retired on the first stage this afternoon when he hit a rock and damaged the front left suspension, sliding off the road at the next corner as a result. He will not restart tomorrow. Henning Solberg (Peugeot) held seventh until the Norwegian rolled on the penultimate test and dropped 14 minutes. Motorcycling's multi-world champion Valentino Rossi (Subaru) lies 13th on only his second world rally.
The final leg is the shortest of the event and covers classic Rally New Zealand territory. After leaving Hamilton at 06.15, drivers tackle two identical loops of three tests on the coast just south of Raglan. It is the only part of the rally common with 2005 and includes two passes over the classic picture postcard Whaanga Coast test, which hugs the Tasman Sea coastline and is regarded as one of the best stages in the championship. Drivers return to Hamilton for the finish at 15.00 after 95.48km of competition.