BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen lie fourth after today's exciting and extremely demanding opening leg of the Acropolis Rally of Greece. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has been in the midst of a thrilling...
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen lie fourth after today's exciting and extremely demanding opening leg of the Acropolis Rally of Greece. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has been in the midst of a thrilling battle at the head of the leaderboard which saw the top five cars covered by just 3.6 seconds at the midpoint of the day's action.
The privately-entered Focus RS of fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen was also involved in the fight for top spot. They took full advantage of better road conditions lower down the start order to hold a surprise lead on this eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship this morning. They are fifth tonight with another privately-entered Focus RS of Norwegians Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud in seventh.
Blistering temperatures, which neared 35C in the shade, and tough gravel roads in the mountains of central Greece combined to make the opening leg a gruelling affair. The Acropolis is traditionally regarded as one of the year's roughest rallies but a comprehensive road repair programme left many tracks smoother than ever. However, eight leading contenders were forced out and just 55 of the original 88 starters returned to the rally base in Lamia.
The event began last night with one of rallying's greatest highlights in recent years. Almost 65,000 fans packed Athens' Olympic Stadium, home of the 2004 Games, and provided a wonderful atmosphere as drivers raced head-to-head around a short purpose-built asphalt track to a deafening cacophony of noise.
When the action began in earnest this morning 200km further north, Gardemeister and Honkanen were quickly into their stride in their Castrol-branded Focus RS to take second on the opening speed test. The 30-year-old Finnish driver posted top four times on each of the opening three special stages to hold fourth at the midday service, just 1.5sec from the lead. He maintained his pace throughout the repeated tests in the afternoon to end the day 17.7sec behind leader Sebastien Loeb.
"I drove hard from the first kilometre and I'm really pleased with the day," said Gardemeister. "The Focus handled perfectly and I've not made any changes to the settings. Our only problem was on the last stage of the morning group when the engine twice cut out briefly. I lost no more than a couple of seconds but I couldn't find anything wrong." Team engineers fitted a new electronic control unit to the engine which worked perfectly during the afternoon.
Gardemeister did admit to a lucky escape soon after the start of the first stage. "I entered a left-right bend too fast and nearly went off the road. It was very slippery this morning with all the loose gravel on the tracks and sometimes my braking wasn't perfect. I'm still in the fight at the front and tomorrow will be a very different day. The roads are rougher and a lot could happen," he added.
It was a disappointing day for BP-Ford team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Mozný. The Czechs hit a bank just 3km after the start of the opening stage and snapped the front left steering arm on their Focus RS. Retirement was instant. "It happened at a left-right corner, the same bend as Toni had a problem. I turned into the right bend over a dip and the car slid into the bank on the left, breaking the steering. I'm really disappointed because Malcolm had told me I could drive flat out and I was looking forward to the weekend," said Kresta. He will restart tomorrow in 50th place under the SupeRally regulations that allow retired competitors to restart the following day with a time penalty.
Hirvonen's lowly start position gave him a distinct advantage over the official manufacturer cars at the front of the field. The early cars swept the roads clear of slippery loose gravel and he was able to capitalise on the clean tracks. One fastest and two third quickest times enabled him to lead by 0.2sec after the first loop of stages. Gearbox problems, when his car became stuck in fourth, hampered him through the afternoon but he was still fast and is 48.8sec behind Loeb.
"We had a perfect morning," said Hirvonen. "Our road position certainly helped but we made no mistakes and had a good run. Tomorrow will be very rough and I'll be happy to keep my position."
Solberg and Menkerud are competing on the Acropolis for the first time. After a cautious morning while they learned the characteristics of the stages, they increased their pace this afternoon and were in the top six times on all tests. "My times were really good considering I've not been here before," said Solberg. "I've not driven at 100 per cent because I don't know the roads, but I'm driving faster than I expected and was quite close to Carlos Sainz this afternoon which is good enough for me. The power and handling of the Focus has been amazing and tomorrow I will aim for fourth or fifth."
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Despite having the worst of the road conditions, Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) ended the day with a 6.1sec advantage over Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot). Gronholm had the upper hand for most of the day, despite having to switch to a manual gearchange system this morning, but the Frenchman moved ahead with a blistering time on the final stage. Carlos Sainz (Citroen), competing on his final WRC rally, kept out of trouble to claim third, just 3.7sec ahead of Gardemeister. Behind Hirvonen, Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) held sixth despite handling problems on both runs through the long stage at the end of each group. Petter Solberg (Subaru) is 14th after struggling with handling problems when he lost his car's spoiler after going off the road on the second stage. Then a broken rear driveshaft this afternoon cost almost three minutes. Team-mates Chris Atkinson and Stephane Sarrazin retired after stage six with engine and rear suspension problems respectively. Team-mates Armin Schwarz and Janne Tuohino (Skoda) were early casualties. Schwarz stopped with engine problems while Tuohino was sidelined with gearbox troubles.
The second leg is again based south of Lamia, but further west. It ventures along the slopes of Mount Iti and Mount Giona, stretching south towards the rally's former base in Itea. Drivers face two identical loops of four stages covering 122.72km, split by a midday service back in Lamia. They leave the town at 08.30 and return for the final overnight halt at 19.05.