Ford and MÃ¤rtin top the leaderboard in Argentine thriller Ford Rallye Sport's Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park led the Rally Argentina after another dramatic day of competition among the South American pampas. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car...
Ford and Märtin top the leaderboard in Argentine thriller
Ford Rallye Sport's Markko Märtin and Michael Park led the Rally Argentina after another dramatic day of competition among the South American pampas. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car will start tomorrow's extended third and final leg with a 15.2 second advantage over world champion Marcus Grönholm, and with the leading four cars covered by less than 30 seconds the scene is set for a tremendous last day showdown.
Team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot are also in a points-scoring position, having negotiated today's rough gravel speed tests with no major problems to move their Focus RS up to seventh. Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen enjoyed the second leg much more than yesterday's troubled day and they returned to the rally base in Villa Carlos Paz tonight in 23rd.
After yesterday's excitement, this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship threw up drama of a different kind amid the stunning scenery of the Punilla Valley and Sierra Chica mountain special stages. The opening test was cancelled after just three cars had passed through while the next was stopped after only eight cars had started. Officials took the decision for spectator safety reasons on both occasions.
By the time the rally re-started it was almost two hours behind schedule. The delay meant the leading drivers would tackle the day's final two stages in darkness, and with the ever-present threat of dust in the bone dry conditions, organisers scrubbed both. Having lost 64.81km of the planned 153.90km, they then announced an extended itinerary for tomorrow (see below).
When the action did start, Märtin reduced the overnight 22.4sec gap to leader Carlos Sainz. But minor gear selection difficulties on the Focus and a brush with a bank allowed the Spaniard to gently extend his lead, until a misunderstanding between Sainz and co-driver Marc Marti resulted in them checking into the penultimate service park one minute early. The 60 second penalty dropped them to fourth and promoted the Ford into the lead - the first occasion the radical new Focus RS WRC has led a rally.
"Tomorrow will be a good fight between the four of us but not an easy one," said 27-year-old Märtin. "After yesterday's problems I didn't think I could lead the rally but it's a good feeling and a great boost for everyone in the team that the new car is at the top of the leaderboard. Marcus was very fast on the final stage this evening, too fast for us. We need to push hard tomorrow and keep our concentration and if we can find some extra speed that would be even better. We took a gamble by choosing softer compound tyres for the final stage but we didn't gain the time we thought we could at the start of the stage. It wasn't a disaster by any means, but the choice wasn't as good as we had hoped.
"I hit a bank on the first corner of stage 18. It was a fifth gear bend and I thought I had damaged the car's suspension but the impact had only knocked the rear right tyre off the rim a little. Michelin's ATS mousse system worked well and we just had to fit a new tyre after the stage," added the Estonian.
Duval, competing in Argentina for the first time, again settled into a consistent pace, the 22-year-old Belgian learning much about rallying South American style. "I'm starting to like this rally now because I understand the nature of the roads a bit more. We're making plenty of changes to our pace notes as we go through the stages which will help us when we return here next year. It's a shame the two stages were cancelled this morning but there were a few corners where the spectators were just too close to the road for safety," he said.
His only troubles came on the final stage when the brakes began to overheat and after the pedal went straight to the floor, he had to drive the final 3km with only the handbrake as stopping power. The team fitted a new pedal box at the final service to restore the Focus to full health.
Hirvonen was one of only three drivers to tackle both the opening stages, the Finn completing the tests before they were stopped. He started the day in 30th and steadily made progress up the order despite the disadvantage of running first on the road. "The Focus has handled perfectly today but it wasn't so easy being the first car through the stages. The road surface was tough with loose gravel on top which made it quite slippery. I think the roads cleaned for the later cars and it probably wasn't so slippery for them. Tomorrow my target is not to make any mistakes and to finish. We lost so much time yesterday that our position doesn't matter. It's gaining experience which is important," he said.
Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson is looking forward to the battle for victory. "It's going to be an incredible battle because there are three drivers within 26 seconds of Markko. It's an advantage that Markko has previous experience of all tomorrow's stages whereas there were some today that were new to him," he said.
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Until late afternoon there was little movement on the leaderboard. Sainz's (Citroen) penalty dropped him to fourth, although he recovered to third on the final stage, and team-mate Sebastien Loeb completed a bad end to the day for the French team by crashing out of fifth on the last stage. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) set four fastest times to climb from sixth to second with team-mate Richard Burns completing the quartet in the fight for victory. Driveshaft troubles slowed Toni Gardemeister (Skoda), although the Finn climbed onto the leaderboard in 10th, while team-mate Didier Auriol remained one place ahead despite an injury to his right wrist sustained yesterday when he hit a rock and the steering wheel kicked back.
Following today's stage cancellations and delays, organisers have made drastic revisions to the schedule for the rest of the rally. Tomorrow's final leg will restart almost two hours earlier than planned, at 06.35, and competitors will now tackle stage 20 for a second time and stage 22, both located close to the small town of San Marcos Sierra. They will then return to the service park in La Cumbre before resuming the planned itinerary with the final three tests close to La Cumbre itself. The changes mean the competitive distance on the final leg has almost doubled from 59.90km to 105.49km. The finish in Villa Carlos Paz is now scheduled for 14.39.