Ford and MÃ¤rtin gear up for podium clash in Sardinia BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park face a fierce final day showdown with former team-mate Carlos Sainz for a podium place on the Rally Italia Sardinia. Their...
Ford and Märtin gear up for podium clash in Sardinia
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park face a fierce final day showdown with former team-mate Carlos Sainz for a podium place on the Rally Italia Sardinia. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car will start tomorrow's third and final leg from fourth position, but just 2.9sec behind the Spaniard after a tight battle over demanding gravel tracks on the Mediterranean island today.
Team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot climbed to sixth in their Focus RS, despite hitting a wall and badly damaging the rear of their car. However, the strength of the Focus RS carried it through almost 30km of competition and a 55km liaison section back to the service park in the rally base of Olbia where BP-Ford mechanics restored the car to full health.
Drivers tackled seven speed tests covering 147.99km, comprising two identical loops of three special stages on the slopes of Monte Lerno and a short test closer to Olbia, which was broadcast on live television. The gravel tracks were smoother than yesterday's opening leg but just as narrow and twisty, with large stones on the verges ready to trap the careless.
Glorious sunshine provided perfect spectating for the crowds gathered in the forests to watch this 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, but made cockpit conditions uncomfortable for the drivers. Air temperatures topped 30°C this afternoon.
Märtin and Park, lying fifth after the first day in their Castrol-branded Focus RS, climbed to fourth on the third stage of the morning. Their progress came despite a front left puncture and a broken rear left wheel incurred on the opening 28.62km Sas Molas test. With just one spare allowed, they replaced the rear wheel but had to drive the remaining two tests with the same front tyre. However, Michelin's ATS mousse system kept the rubber inflated for 43km of flat-out driving.
"It wasn't easy to drive after the puncture but the Michelin system worked well," said Märtin. "On stage eight I hit a small tree with the wheel arch on the rear right. I had too much speed into a hairpin, but the damage didn't cause problems. I stalled at a hairpin in the next stage and after that I lost my rhythm."
The 28-year-old Estonian trailed Sainz by 11.6sec early this afternoon but was faster on each of the final three tests to reduce the deficit. And, just as importantly, he believes he has identified the reason why he has been unable to match the pace of the leading two drivers. "Something is changing the characteristics of the dampers during the stages," he said. "They are fine for the first 10-12km but when they become hot, their behaviour changes and it alters the handling of the car. It's a relief to know what the problem has been and if I can find a good feeling in the morning then I think I can catch Carlos," he added.
Duval and Prévot, seventh overnight, climbed to sixth on the second stage but fell victim to the 34.21km Tandalo test, the longest of the rally. They slid wide on a left corner and damaged the rear right wheel of their Focus RS. They struggled through the rest of the stage to drop 5min 30sec but retained sixth.
"Five kilometres after the start I missed the braking point and hit a wall," said Duval. "The impact bent the right rear wheel and I had to drive carefully through the rest of the stage. I didn't stop to look at the damage, only to allow Markko to pass. Then there was a long liaison section to service and I was lucky to get back because it was a big impact. I don't think I will be the last person to hurt my car and this rally is so hard that I might yet finish on the podium!"
The BP-Ford team replaced the entire suspension assembly in service - shock absorber, suspension link, driveshaft, brake disc and calliper. The car was restored to full health and the Belgian duo set about slashing the gap between themselves and Andrea Navarra in fifth. It stood at 51.9sec tonight.
Duval also reported shock absorber difficulties. "The suspension became harder when the dampers became hot and it made the car difficult to drive. It moved around a lot and I couldn't push as much as I wanted. All the drivers starting the stages before me followed a different driving line so for me it was like being first on the road. I had to create my own line and that wasn't so nice. Tomorrow's stages aren't easy. They remind me of the roads in Cyprus and I don't think I will like them," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said both Focus RS cars ran faultlessly today. "I was impressed with the strength of the car. François inflicted a lot of damage after going off the road but the fact that he was able to make it back to service shows just how strong the Focus is," he said.
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Petter Solberg (Subaru) controlled the day from the front. He won six of the seven stages to end with a lead of 1min 11.5sec. His closest challenger was Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) until the Finn had to drive most of the 34.21km Tandalo test with no turbo boost. He dropped 23 minutes and lies 15th. The stage proved a bad one for the French manufacturer as team-mate Harri Rovanperä retired with the car jammed in first gear, the result of an electronic problem in the gearbox. Championship leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) climbed to second after an untroubled leg and the Frenchman heads team-mate Carlos Sainz, who was unhappy with his stage times throughout the day, by 1min 11.1sec. Private entrant Andrea Navarra took advantage of the troubles afflicting the manufacturer drivers to climb from eighth to fifth. Other retirements included Armin Schwarz (Skoda) who hit a rock and broke a steering arm on the opening test. He fixed the problem himself in the stage but was sidelined with a broken wishbone in the suspension on the following liaison section.
The final day is a compact one based on the slopes of Monte Limbara, west of Olbia. After leaving Porto Cervo at 07.00, drivers face two identical loops of three speed tests covering 77.68km. Reliability will be all-important as there will be no opportunity for teams to work on the cars following the 10-minute service prior to the opening test. Competitors return to Porto Cervo for the finish ceremony at 16.45.