Ford's new Focus claims double points haul in Argentina Ford Rallye Sport claimed an incredible 19th consecutive points finish in the FIA World Rally Championship when a dramatic Rally Argentina finished in Villa Carlos Paz this afternoon.
Ford's new Focus claims double points haul in Argentina
Ford Rallye Sport claimed an incredible 19th consecutive points finish in the FIA World Rally Championship when a dramatic Rally Argentina finished in Villa Carlos Paz this afternoon. François Duval and Stéphane Prévot and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ensured a double points haul for the Focus RS World Rally Car, maintaining a remarkable record of reliability and speed which stretches back to the beginning of the 2002 season.
Duval overcame final day problems to finish eighth at the wheel of the radical new Focus RS on this fifth round of the championship with his Finnish team-mates 16th in a 2002-specification car after an excellent recovery from troubles during the opening leg. But there was disappointment for Ford team-mates Markko Märtin and Michael Park. They led going into today's third leg, at the start of which four cars were covered by just 26 seconds, but retired on the opening speed test with engine problems.
After organisers were forced to cancel four of yesterday's special stages, two tests were added to today's itinerary, almost doubling the scheduled 59.90km of competition to 105.49km. Clear skies, sunshine and higher temperatures than during the previous two days greeted competitors on the five stages, all of which had been tackled earlier in the event.
Märtin and Park, leading world champion Marcus Grönholm by 15.2sec overnight, were 10km into the opening 23.02km stage from Capilla del Monte to San Marcos Sierra when the oil pressure warning light flashed on in the cockpit of their Focus RS. They continued for another 1.5km but, with an engine problem evident, they pulled off the road and retired, ending hopes of a maiden world rally win.
"We lost oil pressure and then the power went and we didn't want to damage the engine any further so we pulled over," said the 27-year-old Estonian driver. "It's obviously disappointing and I was looking forward to the battle today. I've done everything possible to win a rally for a long time. I accept that we have a new car and we'll have problems but we just need some good luck on our side. Now I must think about the next event in Greece. I led there last year and want to be in the same position this season. We've proved here and in the previous rally in New Zealand that the car has the speed to fight for victory. We just need the luck to favour us and one day soon I hope it'll all come right," he added.
Duval climbed to sixth after Märtin's exit but gearbox problems on the opening two stages cost the 22-year-old Belgian 4min 30sec and he dropped to ninth. "About 6km after the start of the first stage we lost sixth gear and then fifth and fourth went later in the test," he said. "As we accelerated away from the start of the next stage third gear disappeared so we had to drive for 22km with just first and second. Everything on the car was very hot but we managed to get through and get back to service."
A replacement gearbox was fitted and despite gear selection and power steering difficulties on the final group of tests, he finished in the points on his Argentine debut. "I like the roads here and I've learned a lot about this rally during the last three days," added Duval. "The car has been very fast and despite our troubles today it's easy to see a big improvement between the new car and the 2002 version."
Hirvonen and Lehtinen faced a tough rally on their first visit to Argentina after losing 24 minutes on the first day. Seemingly out of contention for points, they adopted a cautious pace to gain experience of the unique characteristics of the roads here and were rewarded by taking the final manufacturers' point. They set three top seven times today and Hirvonen said: "I really enjoyed this morning. I didn't push hard but we still set great times, improved our pace notes and gained plenty of experience. The recce before the event seemed rough but in a rally car it wasn't so bad and I'm delighted to score a point for the team," added Hirvonen, whose points finish was the first in the 22-year-old's career.
Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson admitted his disappointment at Märtin's retirement but said: "We were buoyant this morning but I've always said we would target the next rally in Greece as our first real chance of victory with the new car. Cosworth is doing a great job with the engine from the performance perspective but we have a few small changes that need to be made and we'll have those completed before we go to Greece.
"Markko's first win will come but the great thing is that so many of our rivals have said how good our car is. We've again showed its potential here and we've drawn a lot of confidence, especially in the way the suspension performed on such a rough surface. That gives us a big boost for Greece. We need Markko's first victory to come sooner rather than later, psychologically and confidence wise. I've seen what a difference it makes for a young driver to get that first win under their belt. I'm delighted that our youngsters were rewarded with the manufacturer points that preserves our enviable record," he added.
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Following Märtin's retirement, Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) was never challenged, the Finn posting three fastest times today on his way to victory by 26.6sec. It was his third win in five rounds but amazingly he lies only second in the drivers' championship. Team-mate Richard Burns heads him by two points after a thrilling daylong battle with Carlos Sainz (Citroen) for second. The Briton overhauled Sainz on the penultimate stage but a turbo fire midway through the last test slowed him and allowed the Spaniard back into the runners-up position. Apart from Märtin, the day's other major retirement was Armin Schwarz (Hyundai) who retired from sixth on the penultimate stage with engine problems. Missing from the action was Tommi Mäkinen (Subaru), who was withdrawn last night after problems left him with little chance of a points finish. Ironically, had he continued he would probably have done that.
The championship returns to Europe next month for the first time since February when Greece hosts the Acropolis Rally. This year's event, on 5 - 8 June, is based further north in the town of Lamia, and will include stages not used for several years.