The Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart crew of Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets retired their Lancer Evolution WRC from the Rally of Great Britain today. The Belgians have been hampered by gearbox problems throughout the event and were ultimately forced out on the road section to stage 11.
Mitsubishi Motors drivers hold the first two places in the Group N production class however. Peruvian Ramon Ferreyros, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, is just ahead of Swede Kenneth Backlund in a Mitsubishi Carisma GT and Mitsubishi drivers hold nine of the top 10 places in the category.
With a 33% retirement rate yesterday, only 79 crews took the re-start in Cardiff early this morning and, while conditions in the city were clear, light rain and patchy fog greeted the crews in the stages. The route, covering 133 competitive kilometres, involved just four forestry stages in South Wales before returning to the city for the final super special stage. However, following an incident involving Carlos Sainz, stages 11 and 12 were cancelled. While the Focus crew is unhurt, the Medical Officer in attendance advised of 12 spectator casualties and, due to the serious nature of the incident, Ford Motor Company has not only withdrawn Sainz from the event, but also the third car piloted by Mark Higgins.
Despite dampened spirits and respect for the injured, the battle for the rally victory and Championship title still rages and, while Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm holds a commanding one and a half minute advantage over Richard Burns, the Subaru driver is still poised to take his first title on Sunday afternoon.
The Lancer Evolution WRC crew of Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets have suffered with gearbox problems throughout the rally. Fifth fastest through the opening stage - the longest of the rally at 46.45 kilometres - was an impressive feat being that over half of the stage was completed with a broken rear damper and no third or fifth gears. And, by the next stage, Freddy was left struggling with just first, second and sixth.
On arrival at the service park near Swansea, the Mitsubishi engineers could confirm the gear shifting mechanism appeared to be working properly but, having already used the one permitted spare gearbox, the repair options were limited. A last ditch attempt was made by Freddy and Sven, but they were ultimately forced to retire on the road section to stage 11. "Like Tommi, it's very disappointing to go out of the rally. We wanted to finish on a high, but it just wasn't to be", said Freddy.
Adding to his comments, Andrew Cowan, Chairman of Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe said: "It has been a very disappointing end to the season after we started in such a strong way. But, we've experienced similar disappointments before and, as history has proved, this only makes us stronger for the future. Our world rally car is improving event by event, and looking to next year we're feeling positive about our driver line-up and believe we can start in Monte Carlo with a car and drivers capable of winning".
South American drivers have dominated Group N in recent years, and Ramon Ferreyros is therefore upholding a strong tradition in his Lancer Evolution and beating many much more powerful World Rally Cars too.
"Today has not been too much problem for us. I feel I am getting more comfortable with the car now, but we cannot relax. The others are too close behind", Ferreyros said.
Backlund lost ground to Ferreyros on the tough Margam stage, but the Carisma GT driver hasn't given up hope of turning the tables on Ferreyros.
"Ramon is very fast, but the car is strong and I hope we can keep him under pressure. It isn't easy now it has started raining. There is not so much mud, but it is so slippery", Backlund commented.
Swedish veteran Stig Blomqvist has produced one of his best drives of the season on a rally he has twice won outright to climb to fourth in group in a Carisma GT.
"Everything is going OK. It won't be easy to catch the first three, but things can change very fast on this rally and you never know what can happen", Blomqvist said.
Two more Carisma GT drivers complete the top six, British privateer Alistair Ginley lying just ahead of another Swede, Oscar Svedlund.
The final and decisive leg not only of the Rally of Great Britain but also the FIA World Rally Championship, starts from Cardiff at 06:00 hrs on Sunday. Crews face a further four stages and 108 competitive kilometres before returning to the city for the finish at 16:10 hrs (GMT).