MÃ¤rtin and Ford lead thrilling battle of Britain, Ford Rallye Sport drivers Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park hold a narrow lead at the end of today's dramatic second leg of the Rally of Great Britain. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car lies...
Märtin and Ford lead thrilling battle of Britain,
Ford Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park hold a narrow lead at the end of today's dramatic second leg of the Rally of Great Britain. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car lies just 1.6sec ahead of Petter Solberg and the scene is set for a thrilling showdown between two of the sport's brightest young talents, both of whom are chasing their maiden world rally victory, on tomorrow's tough final leg.
Four Focus RS cars lie in the top eight positions. Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya are third, only 26.5sec behind Märtin, while Colin McRae and Derek Ringer lie seventh after a daylong battle with Tommi Mäkinen, the outcome of which was only decided on the final short speed test in Cardiff when McRae spun and stalled, conceding sixth place. Mark Higgins and Bryan Thomas complete the Ford quartet in eighth.
Today's six special stages, five in the forests and a last run at Cardiff's super special, were held in bright sunshine. After an early wake-up call courtesy of the 54.69km Resolfen, one of the longest tests of the season, drivers tackled two loops of two stages at the most northerly point of the event. Although the gravel tracks continued to dry, inconsistent levels of grip caused difficulties for all in judging braking distances.
Märtin, third overnight, attacked hard through Resolfen to overhaul Solberg and claim second. That became first when Marcus Grönholm rolled out and although Solberg pushed hard in the remaining tests, a determined Märtin resisted his challenge and gained a tactical advantage by ensuring he starts behind the Norwegian tomorrow.
"I didn't expect Marcus of all people to make a mistake," said Märtin. "But the fight with Petter continues. The only difference is that instead of battling for second we're now fighting for first. But we mustn't forget Richard Burns. He will have plans for victory too. I don't feel under any more pressure than I did before. I think we could have gone a little faster on the long stage this morning and we'll have to ensure we don't make the same mistake when we repeat it again tomorrow."
Apart from overshooting a junction near the end of the third stage when a cracked windscreen hindered his visibility, Sainz produced another faultless performance, the 40-year-old Spaniard consistently among the top times.
"Unless Markko and Petter make any mistakes it will be difficult to catch them but if they do we must be there to take advantage," said Sainz. "Second in the championship has still to be decided and while we can still achieve that, we must drive hard. I think Petter and Markko must be very excited tonight. I can remember the feeling of being close to my first win but, above all, they must stay calm."
McRae started in eighth but climbed into the top six by demoting Mäkinen. The Finn regained the advantage but McRae held sixth until the final test, despite a feeling of frustration at not being able to set faster times. "It's been hard. The second run in the Crychan and Halfway stages this afternoon was slippery. The road was worn down to the bedrock and we had to drive on slimy, cobbled stone," said the 34-year-old Scot.
Higgins, driving his first rally of the season for the Ford squad, reclaimed a top 10 position in Resolfen, a test which the Isle of Man-born driver relished. "There were places in there where we were flat out in sixth gear and it was fantastic. I'm learning quite a lot but I want more confidence. Most other drivers here have already done 13 rounds to build up their confidence but this my first. We've built up the pace gradually but are still being careful. I know where I'm losing time to the others but their speed is incredible. My times are good, maybe better than last year," said Higgins, who ran as high as fifth on the 2001 rally.
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A short but tricky stretch of narrow, undulating asphalt on the Epynt military ranges transformed the face of the rally. Midway through the first passage of the 17.28km Halfway stage, cars turned off the gravel onto asphalt, muddy tyres giving less than perfect grip on the smooth surface. Within a short distance, while dropping into a difficult dip at a famous location in British rallying between Dixies Corner and Deer's Leap, leader Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) rolled into retirement. He was followed minutes later by Jani Paasonen (Mitsubishi) and just a short distance further on Francois Delecour (Mitsubishi) also crashed out. On a day of several big name retirements, Armin Schwarz (Hyundai) and Thomas Rådström (Citroen) also went out. Schwarz was withdrawn on medical advice after inhaling smoke during a fire in the opening stage while Rådström retired after an oil leak sparked a small fire in the same test. Tommi Mäkinen (Subaru) enjoyed a troublefree day apart from being one of many drivers who suffered a badly cracked windscreen in Crychan, caused by an overhanging branch at a tight right bend. Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) dropped from fifth to 11th when a broken rear wheel bearing forced him to cruise for three stages.
The final day is the longest and toughest of the rally. Although there are only four stages, they cover 138.50km and include a repeat of the massive 54.69km Resolfen early in the morning and two runs at the notoriously tricky Margam test. Drivers leave Cardiff at 05.30 and return for the finish at 16.40.