BP-Ford stretches lead at head of Rally Norway leaderboard BP-Ford World Rally Team tightened its grip on the top two places of Rally Norway during a dramatic second leg today. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who have led from the opening ...
BP-Ford stretches lead at head of Rally Norway leaderboard
BP-Ford World Rally Team tightened its grip on the top two places of Rally Norway during a dramatic second leg today. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who have led from the opening kilometre in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, extended their advantage over team-mates Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen to 19.3sec. The gap back to third place is 3min 29sec.
The BP-Ford duo won five of the six speed tests covering 115.79km as the Scandinavian winter bit hard into this third round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Hirvonen won two of the opening three special stages while Gronholm triumphed on the final three tests. There are four Focus RS cars in the top five with Stobart VK M-Sport drivers Henning Solberg and Jari-Matti Latvala in fourth and fifth respectively.
Today's action initially took drivers east of the rally base at Hamar for a loop that included the daunting 44.28km Elverum test, one of the longest of the season. The route then headed north to the mountain area around Lillehammer, host town to the 1994 Winter Olympics. Temperatures again hovered around freezing, but the milder weather brought several centimetres of snow last night and frequent heavy falls during the day made conditions treacherous.
Twenty-six-year-old Hirvonen stretched his lead over fellow Finn Gronholm to 22.4sec on the opening three tests after winning the two key stages of the day -- Elverum and the 24.36km Mountain. Based high above Lillehammer, Mountain is the rally's signature stage and unlike any other test encountered during the season with deep snow, snowbanks more than a metre high and whiteout conditions.
"It was so difficult," said Hirvonen. "It was snowing all the time and I couldn't see anything. There were blizzard conditions in places, with huge snowbanks and so much snow that sometimes it was coming over the bonnet and onto the windscreen. I don't think I've ever driven a stage like that."
Gronholm reduced the gap during the afternoon with a hat-trick of wins but Hirvonen remained firmly in control. "That was a hard, hard day, but a good one," he said. "There was so much snow and fog that I had zero visibility in places. I have been driving at 110 per cent all day and the snow banks have kept me on the road a few times. It feels great to be fighting with the 'big boys' and my pace notes were perfect. Tomorrow I must maintain my concentration. It's easy to slip up and if I slow down too much then my rhythm will go and I will make mistakes," he added.
Thirty-nine-year-old Gronholm admitted the snow made life tough. "It was very similar to yesterday but the sheer amount of snow made it even harder," he said. "I have been wearing yellow tinted glasses to help with the visibility. When there is as much snow as this, they provide more definition and make it easier to see the driving line.
"I made the perfect stud choice for the tyres this afternoon and was able to take time back from Mikko. But it wouldn't be clever for me to attack tomorrow. I want to win but it would be stupid to take risks when Ford is lying first and second. I also have to think of the drivers' championship and with Loeb out of the points, it makes sense for me to aim for second. But tomorrow will be hard because we have to tackle the three most difficult stages of the rally for a second time," he added.
Today was a perfect birthday present for BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson. "Both Mikko and Marcus did a fantastic job. It's crucial that we bag these points so early in the season both for Ford and in the drivers' championship. Both know what they have to do. I have told them to hold position and not attack each other. They must not make mistakes and the final leg will be far from easy," he said.
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BP-Ford's closest challenger, Sebastien Loeb (Citroen), had a day to forget. After snow blocked his engine's air intake on stage 11 and drained the power, the Frenchman went off into a snowbank on each of the next two stages, losing 17 minutes in total and slipping to 18th. Petter Solberg (Subaru) climbed to third, despite dropping almost a minute with traction problems in stage 11. He is just 9.9sec ahead of brother Henning (Ford) who lost time with a poor stud choice this morning. Gigi Galli (Citroen) was fifth but two trips into snowbanks dropped him to seventh. Toni Gardemeister (Mitsubishi) and Chris Atkinson (Subaru) lost 21 and 17 minutes respectively after going off into the snow on the opening stage while Dani Sordo (Citroen) retired after crashing into a tree on the same test. Matthew Wilson (Ford) retired when he slid off on stage 10 and hit a concrete post, breaking a steering arm.
The final day is the shortest of the rally and comprises four stages that were used today. After leaving Hamar at 06.50, competitors tackle three tests before service, including the daunting Mountain stage, followed by a repeat of the 44.28km Elverum. With more snow forecast tonight, conditions could be equally treacherous tomorrow. Drivers return to the finish in Hamar at 15.00 after 97.10km of competition.