Magnificent seven for charging McRae in Sweden
Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist dominated the second leg of the Swedish Rally as they powered their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to fastest time on seven consecutive speed tests over the demanding snow-covered tracks. After setting three quickest times yesterday afternoon, the British pair recorded four more today during a sensational charge back up the order.
Team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were involved in a tense four-car battle for supremacy at the head of the leaderboard of this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship in their Focus RS. The first-day leaders found it difficult running at the head of the field as a light covering of snow hindered their progress, to the benefit of those behind who enjoyed cleaner roads in temperatures which hovered around -10°C for most of the day. They ended the day in fourth, 28.5sec behind the leader.
But enthralling as the battle for the lead was, McRae brought the special stages alive with a pace which was unmatched by anyone. Often almost half a second per kilometre faster than anyone else, the 32-year-old Scot reeled off quickest times at will as he climbed from an overnight 20th to 11th.
His run of stage wins ended only when he gambled on selecting Pirelli's tyre for snow and soft ice for the repeat run of the 27.79km Nyhammar and the short final test. He assumed the morning passage through the stage would have loosened the road surface but admitted his choice was wrong.
"We had nothing to lose and there's the chance of scoring manufacturer points so we decided to attack," said McRae. "We've been on the limit most of the day and despite losing time on the final two stages due to a poor tyre selection, we're only 45 seconds from Kenneth Eriksson and a points finish. Snow tonight would make an improvement because it would create difficult conditions for the first few cars in the morning."
Sainz was an unwilling 'pathfinder', aware the conditions could cost time. It proved so, although the 38-year-old also lost around 10 seconds when his car's engine stalled under braking for a hairpin on the 34.07km Fredriksberg, the longest stage of the day.
"It's been a difficult day," he said. "I knew starting first on the road wasn't going to be easy but I thought we'd lose less time than we did. Being fourth on the road tomorrow will be better but as two of the stages are repeated I think we'll see plenty of gravel coming through the snow and ice on the second run. That's what happened on the stage that was repeated today and we lost a lot of studs from our tyres. The gravel just rips them out and it doesn't matter what type of tyre you have. Our Pirelli rubber worked well today though and I've been pleased with their performance throughout."
François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup enjoyed a good day in the third Focus RS, climbing to fifth. Having moved into a points-scoring position, the French driver was content to drive cautiously and prevent unnecessary risks but as Kenneth Eriksson, Didier Auriol and Petter Solberg all mounted challenges, he had to raise his pace.
"We dropped a few seconds on the final stage but in general it's been a solid day," said Delecour. "We've pushed hard but there's a fine line between attacking and going too hard and sliding off. We've seen the problems that can cause."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson admitted Sainz had struggled with his road position. "He suffered more than anticipated by running first on the road and he lost out on the stage which was repeated when the surface had worn down to gravel. But he's still in a good position to attack tomorrow, although further back than we would ideally like him to be. Colin has been quite fantastic. He's pushing hard to move into a manufacturer points-scoring position and is now just one place away."
News from our Rivals
Nordic drivers had the upper hand in today's thrilling four-car fight for the lead. Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot), Tommi Mäkinen and Thomas Rädström (both Mitsubishi) ended the day covered by just 12.4sec. None had major problems to report although Rädström was lucky to escape after planting his car firmly into a snowbank on the opening stage. Youngsters Petter Solberg and Markko Martin (both Subaru) have driven carefully all day while team-mate Richard Burns battled his way back to 21st after yesterday's problems. The good work of sixth-placed Kenneth Eriksson (Hyundai) came to nothing on the penultimate stage when he lost three gears, two minutes and four positions. The day's major retirements were Alister McRae (Hyundai) who stopped on the opening stage with engine problems and Armin Schwarz (Skoda) who slid into a snowbank on the next test and with no spectators on hand to dig him out, that was where he stayed.
Tomorrow's final leg takes competitors north again to Hagfors, around which they will face two groups of two stages before the final test close to Hagfors itself. After leaving Karlstad at 06.30 they face 97.55km of competitive driving before returning to the city for the finish at 16.08. Snow is forecast for tomorrow morning and that is sure to hinder the front-runners and throws up the possibility of changes at the top.
<pre> Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. H Rovanperä/R Pietilainen FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 33min 09.9sec 2. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 33min 17.2sec 3. T Rädström/T Thörner S Mitsubishi Carisma 2hr 33min 22.3sec 4. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 2hr 33min 38.4sec 5. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Ford Focus 2hr 34min 31.9sec 6. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Peugeot 206 2hr 34min 38.5sec 7. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 2hr 34min 44.0sec 8. T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 35min 10.6sec 9. D Carlsson/B Melander S Toyota Corolla 2hr 36min 06.4sec 10 K Eriksson/S Parmander S Hyundai Accent 2hr 36min 24.1sec