As the FIA World Rally Championship returns to Europe for the first time since February, Peugeot duo Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm maintain their positions at the top of the driver's standings. Ahead of this week's Acropolis Rally, Gronholm...
As the FIA World Rally Championship returns to Europe for the first time since February, Peugeot duo Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm maintain their positions at the top of the driver's standings. Ahead of this week's Acropolis Rally, Gronholm has narrowed the gap between himself and his 206 WRC team-mate to just two points. The reigning champion scored his third win of the season on the last round in Argentina. Burns has yet to win this season, but has finished on the podium on the last four rallies. Peugeot holds a 13-point lead over Citroen in the manufacturer's championship.
The two French marques have dominated the top step of the podium on all five rallies run so far this year, with Citroen succeeding on the two rallies Peugeot has not. Carlos Sainz is the top Xsara WRC driver behind Burns and Gronholm. The Spaniard won the Rally of Turkey - on similar terrain to this week's Acropolis - and came close to repeating that maximum points haul in South America. Sainz's team-mates Sebastien Loeb and Colin McRae are joint fourth in the driver's standings. Loeb won this year's opening round in Monte Carlo, while the Scot has yet to win in 2003. His record in Greece is impressive, however: McRae has won five of the last seven of these rallies. This is a special year for the organisers of the Lamia-based event, it is the 50th anniversary of the Acropolis Rally. The base for the rally has shifted from Delphi to the city of Lamia, 210 kilometres north of the capital Athens. The rally will also include three stages not used since the early 1990s.
Marlboro Peugeot Total (1st - 65 points)
Technical: The specification of the Peugeots is unchanged from the last outing in Argentina, although Richard Burns and Gilles Panizzi completed an extensive asphalt test between the rallies in preparation for using the 206 on the three sealed surface rallies at the end of the season. The Peugeots of Burns and Rovanpera have been fitted with air conditioning for this event.
Sporting: The Peugeot 206 WRC has yet to win this event, but Marcus Gronholm did finish second on last year's rally. The Finn has undergone surgery on his left knee since Rally Argentina, but he is confident it won't affect his performance on the event as he hunts for his fourth win from six starts this season. Burns and Harri Rovanpera drive the other two official cars run by Peugeot Sport, while Panizzi's works-specification 206 is run by Bozian Racing. This will be Panizzi's first outing since Turkey earlier in the year, when the Frenchman finished fifth.
Marcus Gronholm said: "My knee is fine. It was destroyed when I was racing motorbikes earlier in my career. I had the operation a couple of days after Argentina and was quiet for a week or so after that. It's okay. This is another rally that Peugeot wants to win this year."
Richard Burns said: "I've won this event before (in 1999) and it is one which I quite enjoy. This year there are some of the old stages included in the route. When we looked at them on the recce they weren't quite as rough as we thought they might have been."
Harri Rovanpera said: "Finally I managed to get some points in Argentina. Our start to the year wasn't good, we didn't seem to be getting any luck, now it's all working more like we want it to."
Citroen Total (2nd - 52 points)
Technical: The three Xsara WRCs remain unchanged from Argentina, although the team has made numerous revisions to many areas of the car since its test prior to the event.
Sporting: Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz have a fine history on this event. Save for one event, the pair have dominated the rally since 1994. Sainz won on similarly rough stages in Turkey in March this season and might well have won the last round, had it not been for a misunderstanding between himself and co-driver Marc Marti which led him to book in to a control one minute early. Between them, McRae and Sainz have done this event 23 times, while their younger team-mate: Frenchman (and Monte Carlo Rally winner) Sebastien Loeb has only done the Acropolis twice - and only once in a World Rally Car.
Carlos Sainz said: "The car is going to be roughly the same set-up as Turkey, but the team is always working hard and always making revisions to the car. The test we did went well, but we can't really experiment with the car until we have seen all of the possible alternatives. I won my first ever world championship rally here in 1990, which makes it an unforgettable place for me."
Colin McRae said: "Greece is quite like Turkey, but the stages are a little bit faster. They're still not fast enough for me. I wouldn't really say that the Acropolis is one of my favourite rallies - I like the quick ones. Having said that, I seem to have found the knack needed to win it over the past few years. On this rally, though you also always need a little bit of luck."
Sebastien Loeb said: "I am well motivated for this event. I suppose it might be a good chance for me to win on gravel this year, as it is not as specialised as some of the other events such as Australia or Finland. We had a little bit of trouble getting the Xsara set-up right here last year, but this time around it is feeling much better. It's a much easier car to drive this season."
Ford Motor Company (3rd - 29 points)
Technical: Markko Martin has a new Focus RS WRC03 for this event, while Francois Duval uses one of the New Zealand cars. The Blue Oval will also field two Focus RS WRC02s in Greece, with Finnish youngsters Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala driving them. Ford has revealed a new colour scheme for this season, with Martin's car running with Castrol livery, while Duval's Focus has BP decals.
Sporting: Martin once again demonstrated the potential of Ford's new Focus in Argentina, leading the event into the final day. Engine problems - caused by dust - brought his rally to a premature end, however. Martin spearheaded the team's pre-Acropolis test in Greece last week, completing 400 kilometres in three days. This will be the third time Duval has started the Acropolis Rally, although it will be his maiden attempt in a World Rally Car, having used a Puma on the previous two outings. This will be the first time Hirvonen and Latvala have competed on this rally. Latvala actually makes history in Greece this week, becoming the youngest driver ever (18) to drive an official manufacturer's car.
Markko Martin said: "Our test went well, but I'm not going to make any predictions about the result - ask me on Sunday. Okay, we led the rally last year but that time is gone, we've got to get on with this rally and try to get the result here."
Francois Duval said: "I've got some experience of this rally, but that was in the Puma. I'm going to have to take that into consideration when I'm making my pace notes: the speeds and braking distances vary quite a lot from the Focus."
Mikko Hirvonen said: "This is another new rally for me, but it has been a big help being able to talk to Markko and take some advice from him. The Focus has a great record on this rally which has given me a lot of confidence for this weekend."
Jari-Matti Latvala said: "This is a big challenge for me. I haven't been able to prepare for the rally as fully as I would have liked as I've been busy at school (he studies at a sports school in Finland). I have spent quite a long time talking to my engineer about what sort of pace I should drive at on these roads, it's very important t to get that right in Greece."
555 Subaru World Rally Team (4th - 27 points)
Technical: Both Petter Solberg and Tommi Makinen will have new Subaru Impreza WRC2003s at their disposal on this event. The car does not have any significant changes since Argentina, although Makinen and Pasi Hagstrom did complete a five-day development test on the rough roads around Chateau Lastours in France prior to this event.
Sporting: Neither Makinen or Solberg has won this rally, but both are upbeat about their chances this time around. The last round in South America proved something of a mixed bag for the British team, with Makinen withdrawing from the event after dropping a lot of time with a second-leg transmission problem, while Solberg recovered from an early roll, to end the event in fifth place.
Petter Solberg said: "The car and the tyres have always worked well on this event - and the Acropolis is a rally which I like. By the end of Argentina, I felt much happier with the way the new dampers were working, we made so many changes to the set-up during that rally - I'm more confident now."
Tommi Makinen said: "The testing for this event went well, we got good work done with the suspension. I usually go quite well on rough stages like the ones we'll have this week. I'm looking forward to the three new stages on the event, it's good to have something different."
Skoda Motorsport (5th - 19 points)
Technical: There have been no new developments on the Octavia WRC for this event.
Sporting: The Czech Republic team arrives in Greece on the back of its biggest points haul of the season in Argentina. Didier Auriol's best 2003 finish of sixth place combined with seventh for Toni Gardemeister moved them closer to a top four place in the manufacturer's standings. The team has also announced a debut rally for the Fabia WRC, which will be seen for the first time on the Rally Duetschland at the end of next month.
Didier Auriol said: "Argentina showed what can be achieved if we can keep out of trouble, we'll be looking to do the same on this rally. We might not be able to win the event, but if we are sensible and cautious we can be in a strong position."
Toni Gardemeister said: "Argentina was not so good for me, I had some trouble with the car's transmission and some road penalties from the start, hopefully Greece will be better. I will drive with the same tactic as ever this season: flat out."
Hyundai World Rally Team (6th - 3 points)
Technical: Hyundai has made further small refinements to the Accent WRC since the last outing in Argentina. The team spent three days testing the car on rough gravel, one day each for Freddy Loix, Armin Schwarz and Jussi Valimaki - who is nominated as the team's third driver. The weather wasn't ideal for the test in Greece, however, with rain spoiling the team's chances of gathering useable data for the event. Loix's Accent is brand new, the first one of the season.
Sporting: After four rallies without scoring a point, Hyundai is keen to get something from this event - and the team appears better prepared than ever to manage that.
Armin Schwarz said: "We are looking forward to this event, especially with the new stages. When you look back in the championship to when new stages have been coming in, the Hyundai has gone quite well. This is one of my favourite rallies, you have to use your head to make the right tactical decisions."
Freddy Loix said: "This is a very tough rally, especially for the heat. I am always working to keep quite fit, working on the bike and things like that, but one of the most important things is to make sure we drink lots of water to make sure that we don't dehydrate. For sure it's going to be hard work, but at the same time it's usually been a good rally for the team."
Brice Tirabasi (Renault) and Kosti Katajamaki (VW) share the lead of the FIA Junior World Rally Championship coming into the third round of the 1600cc series. Roman Kresta (Peugeot 206WRC) and Antony Warmbold (Ford Focus RS WRC02) are among the top non-works drivers on the entry list.
EVENT: Acropolis Rally is the 6th of 14 events in the FIA World Rally Championship.
ENTRIES: 90 (70 Group A, 20 Group N)
DRIVERS: Argentina 1, Austria 3, Belgium 2, Bulgaria 2, Czech Republic 2, Croatia 1, Estonia 2, Finland 10, France 7, Germany 4, Great Britain 6, Greece 32, Italy 3, Lebanon 1, Netherlands 1, Norway 2, Poland 1, Romania 1, San Marino 2, Slovakia 1, Spain 3, Sweden 2 Turkey 1.
MANUFACTURER TEAMS: Citroen, Ford, Hyundai, Peugeot, Skoda, Subaru
CARS: (including the manufacturer cars): Citroen 6, Fiat 5, Ford 13, Hyundai 5, Mitsubishi 17, Opel 3, Peugeot 13, Renault 5, Rover 1, Skoda 2, Subaru 5, Suzuki 4, Toyota 8, VW 3.
Thursday 5 June
Ceremonial start at 19h30, Athens
Friday 6 June
Leg 1 starts from Lamia at 07h00 and covers 498.14km, including 145.66km on eight stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Lamia at 19h38.
Saturday 7 June
Leg 2 starts from Lamia at 06h00 and covers 608.67km, including 148.63km on eight stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Lamia at 19h55.
Sunday 8 June
Leg 3 starts from Lamia at 08h00 and covers 336.83km, including 105.04km on six stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Lamia at 16h20.
The rally covers 1443.80km, including 399.49km on 22 special stages (including ten run twice). All stages are on gravel roads closed to other traffic.