BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen extended their lead in the Acropolis Rally of Greece today as many of their rivals fell victim to the event's legendary rough roads. The Finns stretched a slender 8.3sec...
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen extended their lead in the Acropolis Rally of Greece today as many of their rivals fell victim to the event's legendary rough roads. The Finns stretched a slender 8.3sec advantage to 43.3sec in their Focus RS World Rally Car after the hardest day's competition of the FIA World Rally Championship season. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen overcame a difficult leg to hold fourth in another Focus RS.
Yesterday's opening leg proved no more than an appetiser for today's mouth-watering main course. The eight gravel speed tests covering 146.08km included two passes over the marathon 48.88km Agii Theodori speed test near Korinthos, the longest special stage of the year to date. The hard base bedrock provided the toughest of tests for cars and tyres as ground temperatures rose to 41C, while air temperatures of 31ºC guaranteed far hotter figures in the cars' cockpits for drivers to withstand.
BFGoodrich's hard compound tyres were the only natural choice for BP-Ford's drivers all day and Gronholm made the best of them to stamp his authority on the rally by winning both the morning and afternoon tests at Agii Theodori. The 39-year-old took the morning run by 10.7sec and the afternoon pass by an amazing 19.9sec. He was second fastest on each of the remaining six stages to seal a dominant display on a day that required strength and reliability from the Focus RS as well as speed.
"My lead widened this morning but it wasn't big enough to relax on a rally as tough as the Acropolis," he said. "I had to continue driving fast because Solberg and Loeb weren't sleeping. This afternoon I saw Loeb's first split time on the long stage was faster than mine, but I wanted to save my tyres and not destroy then early in the stage so I paced myself. The rock base was really hard and I didn't want to spin my tyres and wear them out so I didn't attack.
"It was demanding and difficult for the car and tyres. They were both perfect but it was hard to enjoy the day. I still need to drive fast tomorrow because Loeb will attack. If the car has no problems then I'm confident everything will be OK but this is a tough, rough rally," he added.
Team-mate Hirvonen restarted in fifth but the 26-year-old Finn was lucky to drop only 25sec after a high-speed crash about 5km from the start of the first pass through Agii Theodori.
"I went off on a flat-out fourth gear right-hand bend at about 150kph," he said. "I went about 60m off the road into the trees and bushes in the forest. I had no idea where I was and had to find my way back to the road. It was the fastest part of the stage and I was just waiting to hit something. I was very lucky because the only damage was a broken windscreen. After that I was OK in the shade but in the sun it was hard to see through the cracks. The roof ventilation flap closed and we had no air in the car for the rest of the stage, but a lot of dust. It was extremely hot."
Rules prevented the team from fitting a new screen at the remote service in Loutraki so Hirvonen had to persevere through the remaining three morning stages, climbing to fourth after the retirement of Dani Sordo. "The car was fine afterwards but I was worried about the screen breaking completely if we had a heavy landing," he added.
The same stage caused more problems for the 26-year-old Finn this afternoon. "The front left tyre punctured after about 10km and started to vibrate. The mousse worked but it blew completely about 5km from the end. I had no traction but fortunately we maintained our position even though I lost about a minute. The road was incredibly abrasive and it destroyed our tyres on the long uphill and downhill sections," added Hirvonen, who jarred his neck after hitting a bump on the long stage.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson supervised a thorough service of both cars this evening and said: "We all said the long stage would be crucial and it was as difficult as everyone predicted. Marcus had a superb run on both occasions and he feels relaxed and confident. However, tomorrow is another tough day and we can't afford to take anything for granted."
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The long Agii Theodori stage provided virtually all of the day's dramas. This morning Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) had to stop and change a puncture while third-placed Chris Atkinson (Subaru) dropped 90sec after puncturing a front right wheel 10km from the end, only to find the mousse didn't work and the wheel became damaged. Punctures were again the problem on the repeat run this afternoon. Luis Perez Companc (Ford), Manfred Stohl (Citroen) and Latvala all had to stop and change tyres while Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) dropped more than 30sec after a front right flat 8km from the end. Petter Solberg (Subaru) held off Loeb's challenge for second until the penultimate stage when a broken damper cost 20sec. Atkinson recovered to fifth but lost more than two minutes over the final two stages with a broken damper. He lies sixth. The day's major retirement was Dani Sordo (Citroen) who stopped with broken transmission on stage 12 when fourth.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally, covering just 78.94km of competition. Drivers leave Markopoulo at 06.15 and face two identical loops of two stages north-west of Athens, split by service back at the rally base. The event ends with a third and final pass over the super special stage at Athens' Olympic Equestrian Centre before the finish there at 14.45.