Stobart Battle Through Tough Test in Sweden
The first full day of Rally Sweden provided a mighty challenge for the Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally Team and the rest of the FIA World Rally Championship field.
After the event's action-packed first leg Stobart's Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson were placed comfortably inside the points, however Marcus Gronholm was less lucky after dropping down the overall standings following an electrical issue late in the day.
The 55 starting cars faced an early start as they took on the longest day of the rally, 126.34km of competitive stage distance in sub-zero temperatures.
Once warmed up the three Stobart Ford Focus RS WRCs, piloted by Gronholm/Rautiainen, Solberg/Minor and Wilson/Martin, started to get to grips with the adverse conditions on the stages and ran inside the top ten throughout the morning.
Returning former WRC champion Gronholm was in sixth position and looking to chase down Sebastien Ogier ahead of him, while Solberg fought a running battle over seventh, eighth and ninth with brother Petter Solberg and fellow Norwegian Mads Ostberg, and Wilson rounded out the top ten just behind that group.
However, the real drama unfolded in the afternoon loop of stages as the conditions on the roads deteriorated and began to catch crews out. With much of the snow and ice scraped away from cars passing earlier in the day, deep ruts started to form in the gravel below providing a challenge for the tough Pirelli SottoZero snow tyre and making accurate steering and braking difficult.
A number of the leading runners lost time in the 21.28km SS6 Viggen where the surface had cut up badly. However, it was an electrical issue that cost Stobart's Gronholm dear, with the car cutting out mid-way through the stage and bringing him to a halt. Although he eventually got it going the incident cost him over ten minutes and meant he dropped well out of the point-scoring positions. The experienced Finn showed he still had excellent pace though by posting the fourth-quickest time on the following SS7 Torntorp.
Henning Solberg managed to steer clear of some of the major incidents that befell other crews and benefitted from their misfortunes to pick up a couple of places. Having changed the setup of his car slightly for the afternoon's stages he then ran well until a small off on the 19.21km SS7 Torntorp. It didn't cost the Norwegian too much time but a change of gearbox back in service afterwards did, adding a lateness penalty of 30seconds to his overall time before he left for the evening's Super Special Stage. Solberg finished the day placed sixth overall.
Matthew Wilson was caught up in one of the biggest incidents of the day during SS6 Viggen. With Petter Solberg having gone off the road ahead of him the young Brit caught the former World Champion and passed him in the stage. However, when Wilson stalled at a corner soon after, Solberg failed to stop on the slippery surface and ran straight into the back of him - causing damage to the rear left of his Ford Focus RS WRC. Wilson did manage to continue after re-group despite handling problems caused by the shunt, and completed the day in eighth being leap-frogged by Mads Ostberg on the Super Special Stage.
After the action on the stages in the Swedish countryside around Hagfors, the crews returned to Karlstad to finish the day in front of the enthusiastic crowds at the Trotting Course arena. That capped a thrilling day of rallying and set the scene for Saturday's 117.km of test distance over eight stages.
Other rally news
From the outset of the new 2010 season 2009 title rivals Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb were once again battling it out at the head of the field. Frenchman Loeb set the early pace, but as surface conditions deteriorated on the stages Hirvonen used his winter driving experience to fight back and ended the first day on top of the leaderboard with an advantage of 6.2seconds
The front pair's team-mates Dani Sordo and Jari-Matti Latvala spent the day battling over third, with the Spaniard holding a 21.1second lead over Latvala after the final stage of the day.
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Marcus Gronholm said:
"I had a couple of close calls in the afternoon as I was trying to push. Then on stage six the car just stopped with no warning. We called the team and were talking about it when all of a sudden it just started again. It was very frustrating as we had been starting to get the feeling back and were finding some speed before that happened. The stage after it was probably the best I have driven so far this weekend so that gave me confidence we can do it again. I am happy that we were able to continue try to enjoy the rest of the rally."
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
"The conditions were quite difficult and that meant it was hard to drive smoothly. We are trying to improve some things about the car and about the way we are driving, but we were quite lucky not to have any big problems like some others. We actually went off on a very slow corner but it is so easy to do that because it is so slippy. Changing the gearbox has cost us some time but maybe it will give us a better feeling tomorrow."
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
"It's been a bit of a strange day to be honest. We were quite cautious in the morning and felt our way into it, then were trying to push on in the afternoon before the incident with Petter. I don't think I've ever been hit up the rear on a stage before. It caused us a problem though as the car was oversteering a lot on one side and that made the last couple of stages pretty difficult. Hopefully the car will be sorted for tomorrow and we can try to show some good pace."
Stobart M-Sport Ford Team Principal Malcolm Wilson said:
"Marcus had a slow start today and an unfortunate electrical problem, but he's been getting faster as the day progressed. His performance on the last main stage shows what he is capable of. Henning has had a good solid day and stayed out of trouble. He's in a good position to capitalise on that tomorrow. Matthew's been gradually improving but the incident with Petter was a setback."
-source: stobart m-sport