Gronholm dominates opening leg to lead in Greece for Ford BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen lead the Acropolis Rally of Greece after dominating today's opening leg in the hills around Athens. The Finns won all...
Gronholm dominates opening leg to lead in Greece for Ford
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen lead the Acropolis Rally of Greece after dominating today's opening leg in the hills around Athens. The Finns won all six speed tests in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to build a 26.3 second advantage at the head of this eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are fourth in a similar Focus RS.
The Acropolis is one of the championship's classic events, characterised by rocky gravel tracks and blistering summer temperatures. The rally has a new look this year with a new base at Athens' majestic Olympic Stadium bringing a return to special stages not used for many years. They are rougher than those used recently, partly a result of a harsher than usual winter, and today's tests offered exactly the conditions around which the rally built its fearsome reputation.
The six tests, covering 120km, were slippery this morning as loose gravel lay on the surface. This was swept clear during the first pass to expose large stones and bedrock with the potential to cause big damage to the cars. Blistering temperatures which climbed to 35C in the air and 44C on the road surface combined with the rough conditions to place a high physical burden on the drivers and huge demands on the BP-Ford team's BFGoodrich's tyres.
The Finn was second fastest during last night's spectacular opening test over a purpose-built track inside the Olympic Stadium, home to the 2004 Games. More than 40,000 fans created a memorable atmosphere as they watched the world's leading drivers race head-to-head around twists and turns and over jumps.
But it is over the rocky tracks that this rally will be won and lost. Success here requires a blend of speed, strength and reliability and Gronholm's Focus RS provided all three in equal measure. When the rally switched to the hills east and north of the city this morning, 38-year-old Gronholm took control. Fastest time on each of the morning's three stages enabled him to return to service with a 13.9sec lead. He virtually doubled that by going quickest on all three tests when they were repeated this afternoon.
"I won every stage and it doesn't get much better than that," he said. "The car is fantastic and I have the tool to beat Solberg and Loeb - and that's a good feeling. I made a good start this morning but I knew that I had to build on that. I was leading by 40sec after the first morning on the last rally in Sardinia. But by Saturday night I was at home watching Finland win the Eurovision Song Contest on television, so that's how quickly things can change.
"The stages were really rough this afternoon but the Focus was great. There were so many rocks lying on the driving line but that is what the Acropolis is all about. We had no problems and I hope it stays that way until Sunday so that I can be in the same position then," he added.
Hirvonen was third in last night's stadium test and settled into fourth this morning in his similar BP Ultimate and Castrol-branded Focus RS. He remained there throughout the day, the 25-year-old Finn concentrating on stretching his advantage over his rivals. He lies 40.4sec behind Gronholm and 13.5sec ahead of fifth-placed Francois Duval.
"Fourth is a good position and tomorrow I must concentrate on keeping the car on the road and avoiding the rocks," said Hirvonen. "I made some changes to the suspension settings at lunchtime and they worked well this afternoon. Conditions were better than I expected this morning but they were rougher this afternoon and tomorrow's leg will be rougher still. This morning I was driving in 'safe' mode, the kind of pace I used in Sardinia, so I pushed harder to try to increase my advantage over the cars behind."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson praised both drivers for their performances. "Marcus has been superb all day long while Mikko has driven to the team strategy. Tonight we have strengthened the protection under the cars ahead of tomorrow's rougher stages," he said.
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Petter Solberg (Subaru) was Gronholm's closest challenger. He was second on every stage except one today to open a 9.2sec advantage over championship leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen). The Frenchman was hindered by running first over the gravely stages this morning. But he could not match Gronholm's pace on cleaner roads this afternoon, despite admitting to taking many risks. Francois Duval (Skoda) was a surprise fifth, ahead of a fierce battle for the remaining places on the leaderboard which saw positions changing hands on every test. Toni Gardemeister (Citroen) held sixth for most of the day but he was edged out by Manfred Stohl and Henning Solberg (both Peugeot) on the final stage. Punctures were common on the rocky tracks but the only driver to encounter major problems was Chris Atkinson (Subaru). The Australian broke a rear differential and dropped three minutes before repairs could be made in service. He is 17th.
The second leg is expected to be the roughest of the rally. After leaving Athens at 08.00, drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages in the Corinth region, west of the city. The loops are split by a return to the Olympic Stadium service park. The second stage of each loop, the 37.33km Kineta, is the longest of the rally. Drivers return to Athens for the final overnight halt at 18.29 after 134.68km of competition.