Ford on course for podium in Escort's farewell rally
The Ford Escort, competing in its final event as a works rally car, is on target for a podium finish in the hands of four-times world champion Juha Kankkunen in the Rally of Great Britain after ending today's second leg in mid-Wales in third position. Indeed there are four Escort World Rally Cars in the top seven places, creating the prospect of a fantastic farewell to the Escort after 30 years of success at the highest level of the sport.
Behind Kankkunen and co-driver Juha Repo's Valvoline-backed Escort are Ford World Rally team-mates Bruno Thiry and Stephane Prevot in the second works entry in fifth, Finns Sebastian Lindholm and Jukka Aho in seventh and the German pairing of Armin Schwarz and Manfred Hiemer in eighth.
The Escort's consistency and reliability has counted for much today. As darkness fell over the final two speed tests of the leg in Sweet Lamb and Myherin Forests, the Ford drivers strengthened their positions after mechanically problem-free days while their rivals encountered serious difficulties.
Heavy overnight rain made today's eight forest special stages extremely muddy. Works drivers Kankkunen and Thiry, along with the other front-runners, resigned themselves to the fact that whatever Michelin tyres they fitted to their Escorts, the conditions were such that the cars would still slip and slide around on the slimy gravel tracks.
"It's been as slippery as hell today and although we chose narrow mud tyres with open treads, it was difficult to counter the mud," said 39-year-old Kankkunen. "Tomorrow we must see what happens on the first two stages. If we can take some time back from Alister McRae then we will push hard for the rest of the day but the two leaders are driving very quickly so it will be difficult."
Ex-Finnish champion Lindholm's only incident came when an overhanging branch cracked his Escort's windscreen while Schwarz was handicapped by the lack of a gravel note crew to drive through the stages ahead of the rally and warn him of the adverse conditions.
"I've driven very sideways, which is the way I used to drive this event before pace notes were introduced. It's safer to drive this way because I can react to problems more quickly in these conditions," said Schwarz.
Ford World Rally team director Malcolm Wilson, responsible for the leading three Escorts, said: "We've benefited from the misfortunes of others today but that's all part of the sport. You have to stay in the game to stand a chance and both Juha and Bruno have driven very solidly to put themselves into a good position for the final leg tomorrow."
British Junior Rally champions Stuart and Steve Egglestone are 33rd and sixth in class on their debut in a two-wheel drive Ford Escort RS2000, the Penrith-based brothers overcoming a minor difficulty with the power steering in stage 18 at Crychan Forest. "Our power steering failed when a pipe came off the steering pump and started spraying oil over the exhaust. That filled the inside of the car with thick smoke and we stopped because we thought we had an engine fire. We disconnected the pipe and did the rest of the stage and the next without power steering," explained Stuart.
Circuit racer Will Hoy has had a real baptism of fire on his first day in the forests with his similar Escort. "Stage 16 in Tywi was so slippery it was almost impossible to control the car. I literally slid off the road at 5mph into a ditch, there was nothing I could do to stop the car sliding away," said Hoy, who is co-driven by Sean Kelly.
"What amazes me about this sport is the level of concentration required. Even in a 24-hour circuit race you drive for two hours and then get out of the car for four hours but this is so relentless. I'm learning all the time but what I lack is anticipating what's ahead and what the road is going to do. I'm getting better but it's something that will only come with experience," he added.
Tomorrow's third and final leg takes the surviving competitors into south Wales. Although the time spent on the road is less than either of the previous two legs, the kilometres covered in just seven stages make up almost half the rally's competitive distance. The rally restarts from Cheltenham at 05.00 and the drivers face 166.37km of competition before returning to the town for the finish ceremony at 16.53.
Leaderboard after Leg 2
1. R Burns/R Reid GB Mitsubishi Carisma 2hr 13min 41.2sec
2. A McRae/D Senior GB Subaru Impreza 2hr 14min 56.9sec
3. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Ford Escort 2hr 15min 27.3sec
4. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 2hr 15min 42.9sec
5. B Thiry/S Prevot B Ford Escort 2hr 16min 42.3sec
6. G De Mevius/J-M Fortin B Subaru Impreza 2hr 18min 07.9sec
7. S Lindholm/J Aho FIN Ford Escort 2hr 18min 19.8sec
8. A Schwarz/M Hiemer D Ford Escort 2hr 19min 49.5sec
9. K Holowczyc/M Wislawski PL Subaru Impreza 2hr 20min 04.7sec
10 H Rovanpera/R Pietilainen FIN Seat WRC 2hr 20min 28.3sec