Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars held four of the top 10 positions after a destructive opening leg of the Cyprus Rally today. Car breaking conditions on the Mediterranean island's twisty gravel tracks either sidelined or delayed one top driver...
Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars held four of the top 10 positions after a destructive opening leg of the Cyprus Rally today. Car breaking conditions on the Mediterranean island's twisty gravel tracks either sidelined or delayed one top driver after another. But the four Focus RS cars were models of reliability in the gruelling speed tests, and none suffered serious mechanical problems on roads regarded as the roughest faced by the FIA World Rally Championship contenders in recent years.
Norway's Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud led the Focus RS challenge in third with fellow private entrants Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr in fifth. BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen are eighth in their Castrol-branded Focus RS after a puncture deprived them of a potential second. Team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Mozný are 10th after also losing time with punctures.
Shade temperatures exceeded 30C as the 54 starters faced two identical loops of three speed tests covering 121.78km in the Troodos Mountains in the centre of the island. Incredibly twisty gravel tracks make this sixth round of the championship the slowest of the season and average speeds only just exceeded 60kph. The slow speeds provided little airflow to cool either drivers or hard working engines, transmissions and suspension. But by far the toughest aspect was the large stones lying in the tracks and the solid base rock on the roads which gave cars a fearful battering.
Gardemeister was third after the opening loop, despite slight overheating which sent his car's engine into 'safe' mode on each special stage. "The overheating caused the anti-lag system to stop working. The engine went into 'safe' mode to control the temperature and took away throttle response. It wasn't a big problem. On the first test I had a difficulty with the brakes, which is quite funny now. The brake fluid bottle came loose and fell on the floor, jamming under the brake pedal. I couldn't press the pedal all the way down and I couldn't move the bottle either!" he said.
However, the 30-year-old Finn punctured a front left tyre just after the midpoint of the 38.32km Lagoudera - Spilia test. He had to change it and rejoined in the dust of a struggling Harri Rovanpera. "I had no choice but to stop and change the puncture," he said. "Then I couldn't pass Harri because he couldn't see me behind him due to the dust. When I finally passed him, I then spun and so the whole stage was a mess. It was so rough this afternoon that the car was bottoming out on the sumpguard in the ruts and it was hard to steer in places." Gardemeister slid to 12th but fourth and second fastest on the final two stages promoted him to eighth.
BP-Ford team-mates Kresta and Mozný were seventh in their similar Focus RS after the opening loop. "I tried to drive as straight as possible and avoid the rocks," said Kresta. "I didn't drive at maximum pace because it's so easy to make a mistake, slide off the line and into a rock."
He punctured two tyres this morning and after climbing to sixth on the opening stage this afternoon, further tyre trouble cost more than two minutes. Two front punctures meant he had to switch the right front tyre onto the rear left in a bid to ensure the best rubber was fitted to the front. The tyre quickly wore down to the rim and damaged the suspension but the 29-year-old Czech nursed the car through both remaining tests and back to service at the rally base in Limassol.
"It's been an incredible afternoon, very, very difficult," he said. "The time loss means we have a bad start position tomorrow but I'm still in the rally and that's the important thing. After the punctures this afternoon, my only aim was to get the car back to service. It was tough but we did it and now the team can replace the suspension so that the car is perfect again tomorrow."
Solberg experienced small overheating problems this morning but was delighted with the day. "I'm happy to be the best Solberg tonight," said the Norwegian, whose brother Petter retired this afternoon. "I've had a few tyre troubles but the car has been really strong. I should have a good road position tomorrow and I'm looking forward to it."
Warmbold was equally contented. "It's all gone well so far. I've stayed out of trouble during a tough day and found a good rhythm. I'm looking forward to tomorrow because the stages should suit me. This is going to be a long, hard rally and there's plenty of work still to be done," he said.
News from our Rivals
This was forecast to be a rally of high attrition and today lived up to that prediction. Four leading entries were sidelined and many more hit trouble. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) survived the carnage to build a lead of 2min 04.2sec. He lost time on the opening stage when his car stalled several times while using the handbrake at hairpin bends. He was then fastest on the remaining five tests. A surprise second was private entrant Manfred Stohl, who avoided problems all day. Markko Martin (Peugeot) lost 90sec on the first stage with a puncture but recovered to fourth. Francois Duval (Citroen) completed the top six, losing third place when he dropped 90sec on the third stage and incurred a 70sec penalty with a throttle problem. Petter Solberg (Subaru) held second until turbo trouble cost 90sec on stage five and a problem with the electronics forced him out just a few metres after the start of the last test. Team-mate Chris Atkinson retired with a broken clutch on the liaison section after stage two. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) fared worse, stopping on the first stage with a broken cam belt in the engine and it is unlikely he will rejoin tomorrow under the SupeRally rules. Armin Schwarz (Skoda) retired on the liaison section to service after stage three when a broken alternator belt meant his car had no charge. Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) survived gearshift problems this morning and transmission trouble this afternoon to hold seventh, while engine and transmission problems slowed team-mate Gilles Panizzi this morning and he is 22nd.
The second leg covers a similar format, with two identical loops of three special stages split by service back in Limassol. The stages in the Troodos Mountains are more southerly, close to Mt Olympus and stretching west towards the resort of Paphos. Cars leave Limassol at 07.45 and return for the final overnight halt at 17.58.