Gronholm consolidates second for Ford on Rallye de France
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen tightened their grip on second place during today's second leg of Rallye de France in Corsica. The Finns were a model of consistency in their Focus RS World Rally Car on the twisty mountain roads of the Mediterranean island, with second fastest time on five of the six asphalt speed tests.
Only Corsican expert Sebastien Loeb could match 39-year-old Gronholm's pace during another sun-kissed day amid the craggy rock faces north of the rally base of Ajaccio. As the duo fought not only for supremacy on this 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship but also for points with just three rounds of the series remaining after this, Gronholm pulled clear of third-placed Dani Sordo. He ended the day 27.5sec behind Loeb and 33.1sec ahead of the Spaniard.
Drivers tackled two identical groups of three speed tests covering 122.94km, split by a return to Ajaccio for lunchtime service. As air temperatures climbed to 24ºC and road temperatures topped 32C, it was a tough day for tyres on the already abrasive surface. However, Gronholm had no worries with BFGoodrich's medium compound rubber this morning and the harder version for the warmer temperatures this afternoon.
Gronholm started the day just 4.8sec behind Loeb and took the attack to the Frenchman over the morning loop. He was second fastest on all three stages to return to service 12.6sec behind. Third quickest on the opening afternoon test was followed by two more second places.
"I will happily take second place and eight points because that would be good for my championship challenge," he said. "I found a good stable speed and I will continue driving quickly, but not pushing like crazy because we must finish, so that I'm close enough to Loeb if he has a problem.
"I drove flat out this morning because I didn't want to settle for second. I kept the pressure on so that he couldn't afford to sleep behind the wheel. I didn't take Loeb's splits in the car during the stages. This was Timo's idea so that there were no distractions and I could just concentrate on driving at maximum pace. We both had to do that, so looking at his splits would have made no difference because I couldn't have driven any faster anyway," he added.
BP-Ford team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen had a frustrating day in the second official Focus RS car. They restarted under SupeRally rules in 63rd place after crashing into retirement yesterday. With little chance of gaining any points, 27-year-old Hirvonen concentrated on checking his pace notes and increasing his experience of the Corsican roads. He climbed to 32nd.
"I checked my notes and made some changes which will help for next year," said Hirvonen. "I tried really hard on the first two stages but the times just weren't there. I made the set-up stiffer this afternoon to try to find a better balance. It was a difficult day and I'm a bit frustrated. It's hard to be fully motivated in this situation but I would feel better if I could set some good times."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said: "Marcus kept the pressure on all day but we need to be realistic now and look at maintaining our position. About 3km from the end of the final stage Marcus lost the use of the hydraulic gearshift and a drop in engine power but fortunately he didn't lose any serious time. We traced this to a gearbox sensor problem and we replaced the sensor in the service park this evening."
News from our Rivals
Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) won five of the six stages to ease away from Gronholm while team-mate Dani Sordo (Citroen) won the opening afternoon stage after struggling with a lack of grip this morning. Francois Duval (Citroen) held fourth despite alternator problems on the final two stages, but his car stopped on the liaison section back to Ajaccio and he retired. Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) and Petter Solberg (Subaru) fought over fifth place all day, the Finn moving ahead this morning and gradually easing clear to lie fourth tonight following Duval's demise. Solberg again suffered understeer problems for much of the day. Manfred Stohl (Citroen) dropped 12 minutes on the penultimate stage after his car's engine stopped with no fuel pressure, slipping to 25th. Nicolas Bernardi (Suzuki) set some impressive times on the Japanese manufacturer's WRC debut but retired after the first stage this afternoon when the car's engine stopped.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally, but still contains 112.10km over four long stages south of Ajaccio. After leaving the town at 07.45, drivers face two identical loops of two stages split by a return to service before the finish in Ajaccio at 14.02.