Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot finished today's second leg of the Acropolis Rally in fourth after a thrilling three-car battle for second place throughout the day. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car constantly ...
Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot finished today's second leg of the Acropolis Rally in fourth after a thrilling three-car battle for second place throughout the day. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car constantly traded seconds and places with Harri Rovanpera and Sebastien Loeb during a second demanding day of driving over rocky gravel tracks in the mountains of central Greece.
Drivers tackled seven more speed tests covering 133.18km, the leg ending with a third and final pass through the super special stage at Lilea, which was again witnessed by huge crowds. In contrast to yesterday's overcast skies and rain showers, temperatures climbed to 26C in the mountains and the special stages were drier.
Although shorter than yesterday, today was arguably more difficult. Drivers covered more than 87km of competition this morning without the benefit of a full service. Their only opportunity to make repairs came at a short 10 minute maintenance zone, when only two team personnel were allowed to work on the cars in addition to the drivers. Only spare parts carried in the rally car could be fitted.
Duval and Prevot climbed to second place after the second stage this morning when just 1.7sec covered the three cars. Twenty-three-year-old Duval refused to take unnecessary risks in his battle, but continued to match the pace of Rovanpera and Loeb, ending the leg just 18.4sec behind the Finn and 9.8sec behind the Frenchman. Only once was Duval outside the top four stage times as he kept the pressure on his rivals.
"It was a good, but difficult, morning for us because some of the stages were new to me," said Duval. "It was important not to have major problems because there was no opportunity to repair them. We had no big trouble, although we hit a big stone near the end of stage 11. We also landed heavily after a jump two stages later and for the rest of the stage the steering didn't feel right." The team replaced the steering arms and realigned the geometry in service.
"I'm pushing hard but at the same time trying to preserve the car. The Focus is strong but in these conditions it's important to be careful and ease off sometimes. It's still close between the three of us and tomorrow will be an exciting day. There are more new stages for me because I didn't drive them last year as we had retired by then. That will be difficult," he added.
Today marked the introduction of the experimental 'SupeRally' system, which allows retired cars to re-start subsequent legs. The system is expected to be introduced into the championship from 2005 with points awarded on each leg. However, it will be used until the end of the 2004 season with no points allocated to those cars that rejoin.
Ford BP drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park took advantage of its introduction to carry out some testing on their Castrol-backed Focus RS following yesterday's retirement. They tested shock absorbers and Michelin's new TDE hot weather, rough surface tyre, although Martin admitted it was hard to motivate himself.
"It's difficult to raise your game when there is nothing to fight for," he said. "To set fastest times you have to be in competition mode. It was also hard to try new parts because in an ideal test you drive the same road again and again to make comparisons, which obviously we can't do here on a rally."
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson was happy with Duval's performance. "He's done very well again today, especially on stages that he has not driven before. His pace against Loeb and Rovanpera, who was attacking hard, was good. Markko has had a positive day testing. We have tested tyres in preparation for the rally in Turkey later this month and also worked on the suspension. Today was endurance work and tomorrow we'll look at performance," he said.
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Leader Petter Solberg (Subaru) extended his advantage until a brake problem meant he drove most of the longest test of the rally with only the handbrake working. He lost 25 seconds but ended with a 58.5sec lead. The fight for second was tight. Harri Rovanpera (Peugeot) lost second on stage 11 after he suffered a large cut on the tread of a tyre. However, he regained it on the next stage and remained there, setting two fastest times. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) benefited from an improved road position to become the Finn's closest challenger. He is 8.8sec behind. Behind Duval is private entrant Daniel Carlsson and Gilles Panizzi (Mitsubishi), the Frenchman losing time with handbrake problems and a lack of power this morning. Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) climbed to eighth before rolling and damaging his car's cooling system on the penultimate stage. He dropped to 16th. Carlos Sainz (Citroen) recovered to 31st after yesterday's problems and the Spaniard remains in the manufacturer points. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot), lying fourth, broke his car's left rear suspension after hitting a rock near the end of the opening stage. He tried to make repairs but retired shortly after the start of the next test.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally and comprises two loops of three tests north-west of Lamia, around the Timphristos mountains. Drivers depart Lamia at 06.30 and return for the finish ceremony at 14.53 after 98.50km of competition.