FIA World Rally Championship leader Marcus GrÃ¶nholm has already stamped his authority on the sixth round of the series, the Rally Argentina, which began in earnest this morning. After last night's ceremonial start in host town Villa Carlos Paz,...
FIA World Rally Championship leader Marcus Grönholm has already stamped his authority on the sixth round of the series, the Rally Argentina, which began in earnest this morning. After last night's ceremonial start in host town Villa Carlos Paz, today's action took crews into the mountain roads to the north of Cordoba. Grönholm was fastest on the opening three stages and as weather conditions worsened this afternoon, he charged further ahead to end the opening day with a lead of more than a minute and a half.
Behind the Peugeot driver, there has been a close battle between Tommi Mäkinen and Richard Burns for second overall. The scrap swung back and forth in the final two stages as both drivers fought with poor visibility and Mäkinen hit gearbox problems. The Subaru driver eventually ended the day just over 20 seconds clear of the reigning world champion, with the other works Impreza of Petter Solberg just over six seconds further back in fourth.
Despite the poor weather conditions and notoriously tricky Argentine stages, there have been few retirements among the leading crews, although François Delecour's Lancer succumbed to accident damage and Armin Schwarz's Hyundai stopped with fuel pressure at the end of SS9.
Technical: The 206 WRCs of Marcus Grönholm and Harri Rovanperä have been reliable today. The car of Richard Burns broke a spark plug on this morning's opening stage, lapsing onto three cylinders for more than half of the test. Gilles Panizzi's car stopped and was reluctant to restart on the final road section to La Cumbre service after SS9, and he and navigator brother Hervé had to push the car into the time control.
Sporting: Marcus Grönholm might have had to wait a little longer than expected to start his charge this morning - thanks to the cancellation of the first stage due to spectator congestion - but once the action began in earnest, the current championship leader set three fastest times in succession to move clear of rivals Tommi Mäkinen and Richard Burns. He then bolstered that advantage with another fastest time in the day's penultimate stage as low cloud reduced visibility to only a few metres. Grönholm ended the day's action well over a minute clear of his nearest rival. His team-mate Richard Burns lost time on today's first test when his 206 WRC broke a spark plug and dropped onto three cylinders. But the reigning world champion recovered in the middle group of stages, setting fastest time in SS6 as he moved ahead of Harri Rovanperä into third overall. That became second overall when Mäkinen hit gearbox problems. Rovanperä was also in contention for a podium position overnight, but the Finn dropped time on the last pair of stages - he holds seventh. The final 206 WRC of Gilles Panizzi stopped on the road section back to final service this evening, and the crew had to push the car into the time control at La Cumbre an collected 1m20sec road penalties. They still ended the day in eleventh, however.
Quotes: Marcus Grönholm said: "It's obviously gone very well today. In some places running first on the road hasn't been so nice, because there was some quite deep gravel in places and we were sweeping it off the road. This afternoon in the fog was really bad, with visibility down to five metres in some places. But in general, I'm pretty happy because we've been setting good times and the car has been reliable. The gap looks good but if the weather stays bad then you can lose a lot of time in just one stage. We just have to try to maintain our pace tomorrow."
Richard Burns said: "I've rarely seen fog and low cloud as bad as it was this afternoon. The problem here is that you only have to go slightly off-line and you can have a big off, so it was a case of who was willing to take more risks than others. Clearly Marcus was comfortable with pushing very hard, because his times were good."
Technical: Tommi Mäkinen's Impreza WRC2002 hit gearbox problems in the day's closing two stages - the car started to change gear without any input from the driver and was restricted to fourth, fifth and sixth for much of SS8. Mäkinen had a full compliment of gears for SS9 but even then, the 'box was still changing without input. He and team mate Petter Solberg both suffered from cracked windscreens for much of the afternoon as well, after they were hit by flying rocks on the twin-track superspecial stage at lunchtime. Solberg's car completed the final pair of stages with low hydraulic pressure in the centre differential, making the Impreza unpredictable under braking.
Sporting: Tommi Mäkinen battled with Richard Burns for second overall during much of today's mileage. Gearbox problems in SS8 seemed to have relegated the Finn to third, but he got a full compliment of gears for the last test and fought back to inch into the runners-up spot overnight. Team-mate Petter Solberg clipped a rock in SS2 and punctured, but the young Norwegian recovered during the afternoon tests. Despite a fluid leak in his centre differential, he moved into the top six and he holds fourth overnight.
Quotes: Tommi Mäkinen said: "The gearbox problem was awful - it must have cost me at least one and a half minutes, because there were hairpins were we came into the corner in fourth, fifth or sixth gear and it stalled. We even stopped the car for a while to reset everything, but it didn't make any difference. It's a shame because I had a really good feeling in the fog and I know I could have taken more time off some of the other guys."
Petter Solberg said: "I pushed hard this afternoon and had a few moments, but it paid off because we moved up the leaderboard. The visibility was awful, though - like about half a metre in some places. As for tomorrow, we're not too far behind Richard so hopefully we can attack. I think the fact that it's our second run over the stages will help me a bit as well."
Technical: Carlos Sainz's Focus RS WRC02 lost its power steering this morning, but that aside, the Spaniard's car and those of his team-mates Colin McRae and Markko Martin have been reliable.
Sporting: Apart from Carlos Sainz's power steering problems this morning, the three factory Focus RS WRC02s have been reliable today. But the team has been left puzzled as a result, since neither Carlos Sainz or Colin McRae has been able to seriously threaten the pace of either the Peugeots or the Subarus. McRae spun in a narrow stretch of road in SS3 and had to move his car back and forth several times before he could continue, losing around half a minute. He holds 9th overnight, while Sainz is the leading Ford in fifth and Markko Martin is 10th.
Quotes: Carlos Sainz said: "The power steering problem this morning was very annoying. Just like in Cyprus, I didn't actually hit anything but all of a sudden it went very heavy and we had to do about 10 kilometres with no power assistance. All we can do is keep trying to find something that will bring us closer to the Subarus and Peugeots but right now, it's clearly very difficult. We'll see what the weather conditions are like tomorrow morning and make a decision based on that."
Colin McRae said: "We haven't really had any mechanical problems but when we come to the end of the stage the times just aren't there at the minute. As for this afternoon, I just wasn't prepared to take risks in conditions like that."
Technical: The Accent WRC3s of Juha Kankkunen and Freddy Loix have been generally reliable today, but Armin Schwarz hit problems with a broken wheel this morning (costing him six minutes as he changed the wheel). He then retired with a loss of fuel pressure near the end of SS9.
Sporting: Freddy Loix was unhappy with his performance this morning and the Belgian also felt that his Accent's set-up forced him to drive more aggressively than he'd have liked. But this afternoon's foggy conditions clearly suited him better - after a half-spin in SS8 he went on to set scratch time in SS9 as he became the top non-Peugeot Michelin car in sixth overall. Team-mate Juha Kankkunen could have done even better, since he'd been the top Hyundai for much of the day, but he slid off the road and beached his car on gravel in SS8. Navigator Juha Repo had to run to find spectators to help, and the pair lost about five minutes as a result. They still arrived back in Villa Carlos Paz this evening in 15th. The third Accent driver, Armin Schwarz, lost six minutes in SS3 when a wheel broke, and any hopes of a recovery were dashed when his car lost fuel pressure and stopped in SS9.
Quotes: Freddy Loix said: "It's been a hard day's work and I haven't been happy with my own driving on a few of the stages but at the end, we're in quite a good position and hopefully we can build on that."
Technical: The Octavia WRCs of Kenneth Eriksson, Toni Gardemeister and Gabriel Pozzo have been basically reliable today, although Gardemeister did suffered a puncture in SS9.
Sporting: Toni Gardemeister felt that his times didn't match up with his performance this morning, but the young Finn took more risks in the fog this afternoon (he drove up a bank on a straight in SS8, then set fourth fastest time despite a puncture in SS9) and that helped. He ended the day in eighth. Kenneth Eriksson was happier with his Octavia once he'd changed the rear suspension, and the veteran Swede holds 12th overnight, two places clear of the third Octavia of local driver Gabriel Pozzo.
Quotes: Toni Gardemeister said: "It's been a strange day - even when I thought our times would be good they weren't. But we've ended up in quite a good place and hopefully we can push further tomorrow."
Technical: Alister McRae bent his Lancer Evo WRC's steering on this morning's second stage, and then he lost further time with a mousse insert break-up and a puncture in SS5 and SS6. He lost almost all of his brakes for both of the final two stages, and had to use the handbrake to get the Lancer turned into corners. Team-mate François Delecour damaged his car's suspension over a jump in SS6, rolled and although he continued with just three wheels, he pulled over before a narrow section instead of risking holding up fellow competitors.
Sporting: Alister McRae has endured a difficult day, with only a few stages without mechanical problems. He suffered bent steering, a mousse break-up and a puncture this morning, then a loss of brakes in this afternoon's fog. The Scot has been able to post respectable times between his glitches, though, and he ended the day in 13th overall. Team-mate François Delecour looked set to hold a top-10 placing but in SS6, the Frenchman broke his car's suspension over a jump and rolled. He was able to continue slowly on three wheels, but a narrow section of road followed and he elected to stop, rather than hold up any of his fellow competitors.
Quotes: Alister McRae said: "It's been hard work today with our problems, but we're at least still here. The brake problem was pretty bad, though - I don't like having no stopping power when the fog's as bad as that."
Marcos Ligato and Toshihiro Arai have swapped fastest times in the Group N category for more standard machinery, but gearbox and brake problems have hampered the Japanese driver in some tests and Ligato leads him by more than three minutes overnight.