Gardemeister holds points place for Ford in Sweden
A solid afternoon performance enabled BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen to recover from a disappointing morning and end today's opening leg of the Swedish Rally in a points-scoring position. The Finns lie seventh in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, heading the BP-Ford squad after a tough day's competition on snow and ice-covered tracks in central Sweden.
Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud, driving an M-Sport run Focus RS but nominated for points by Ford, are 11th after pushing for a top six place earlier in the day. Roman Kresta and Jan Tománek, driving the second BP-Ford Focus RS are 12th, the Czechs gaining in confidence on the wintry roads on only their second visit to this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Traditionally the only pure winter event in the series, there was barely a snowflake to be seen in the Värmland district until yesterday. Then it snowed hard, although much of the snow melted until temperatures plunged to -10°C last night. The fluctuating weather left the roads icy and snowy this morning, with only a few exposed gravel patches. But warm sunshine and the initial pass through the speed tests near the town of Hagfors meant more soft gravel was showing as competitors repeated them this afternoon. They covered 106.48km of action in total.
Gardemeister and Honkanen, making their loose surface debut in the Castrol-branded Focus RS, had a difficult morning and the Finns were an unhappy 13th after the opening loop of special stages. "We were sliding all over the road, even on the straight sections," said 29-year-old Gardemeister. "I was driving at maximum but the back of the car was sliding badly. I wasn't able to follow Loeb's line on the road because that was straight and we weren't. I was confused."
The team softened the rear anti-roll bar and rear differential settings on his Focus RS during service to try to cure the problem. The changes helped and Gardemeister climbed to seventh during the afternoon, posting fourth fastest time on the final test on the edge of Hagfors itself.
"This afternoon was much better but I still don't think I've had the kind of grip I need. We made our pace notes on the recce in dry and clear conditions so this morning, in the snow and ice, they were too fast but that was the same for everyone. Tomorrow I will set the dampers a little softer to see if that improves the grip," added Gardemeister, who has been suffering with a headache all day.
Solberg and Menkerud were making their debut in the latest specification Focus RS. They dropped time this morning when an oil pressure warning light flashed on during the opening two stages. Solberg slowed on each occasion, fearing an engine problem, but it proved a false alarm. He was 12th at the midday service but, restored to full pace, climbed to seventh before a puncture on the penultimate stage cost 20 seconds and he again dropped back.
"I became more confident all the time and this Focus is the best car I've driven," he said. "I made a good tyre choice this morning and I don't think I lost a single stud. My problem this afternoon came on stage six. I must have cut a corner and hit a stone, although I can't recall it. The impact punctured the front left tyre and the mousse didn't work. The tyre went down and I drove quite slowly to the finish. Tomorrow is flat out!"
Kresta, with the pressure of being a nominated driver removed, was able to concentrate on increasing his experience of this specialised event. After a cautious opening, he stepped up his pace and is only two seconds away from a place on the top 10 leaderboard tonight.
"It was a good day for me and I'm really enjoying the rally," said the 28-year-old Czech. "I drove carefully this morning but I felt more confident so I decided to push more this afternoon. However, I lost some time in stage four because I was going too fast and slid too much. The Focus has worked well and I'm happy with my set-up.
"I had a small problem in the third stage this morning. The correct line meant taking big cuts in the corners and in these conditions that risked punctures. Midway through I hit a stone on a fast left corner and damaged the front left tyre. However, Michelin's mousse system worked well to keep the tyre inflated and we lost no time. The same happened in stage four when I again cut a corner but this time it was the front right tyre. Tomorrow I will go faster because I have more confidence, but only one small step faster because I don't want to make a mistake," he added.
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Petter Solberg (Subaru) opened a 7.5sec lead with fastest time on the first two stages. However, the Norwegian made changes to his car's suspension before the third test, badly affecting the handling and he slipped to third. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) moved ahead, despite feeling unhappy with his stud selection. The Norwegian regained the lead on the penultimate stage but Grönholm snatched it back on the last test and leads by just 0.2sec. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was comfortable in second until he overshot a junction and slid into a ditch 4km from the start of the fourth stage, dropping almost 20 seconds and sliding to fourth. He regained third from Gigi Galli (Mitsubishi) who was the big surprise. The Italian was in the top six all day and set fastest time on stage six. François Duval (Citroen) overcame understeer problems to hold fifth, ahead of Markko Märtin (Peugeot), who spun on the opening stage and struggled for confidence. Daniel Carlsson (Peugeot) lay third until he was one of many to hit the same rock as Kresta in the third stage, breaking his car's front left suspension and losing one minute. Private entrant Mikko Hirvonen also hit the stone, the impact ripping off his front wheel and dropping him off the leaderboard.
The second leg is the longest of the rally, comprising 139.53km of competition. After leaving Karlstad at 05.50, competitors head north to Hagfors again. They face seven more tests close to the town, the day again ending with the short 'spectator friendly' test right on the edge of Hagfors itself. The Lejen test, at 26.40km, is the longest of the event and three of the stages will be used for a second time. Drivers return to Karlstad for the final overnight halt at 19.42.