Marcus Gronholm was back in his element on the gravel of Rally d'Italia, the seventh round of the World Rally Championship, quickly building a 35-second lead over archrival and points leader Sebastien Loeb. Gronholm started strongly with three...
Marcus Gronholm was back in his element on the gravel of Rally d'Italia, the seventh round of the World Rally Championship, quickly building a 35-second lead over archrival and points leader Sebastien Loeb.
Gronholm started strongly with three consecutive stage victories -- he won four of six on the day -- and by the halfway point of the day, he held a 40-second lead over Loeb's Citroen. The defending champion fought back, though, taking the fourth and fifth stages to cut into the lead.
"The Ford Focus felt really good and I was able to relax while driving," the Finn explained. "But surely Loeb won't give in. Tomorrow we will use the same strategy as today: drive fast!"
"I still have a big fight on my hands with Loeb and I think there will be two more days like that." he continued. "The roads were badly rutted this afternoon and it was hard for the tyres but I avoided any punctures which is a testament to their strength and BFGoodrich's efforts."
Loeb's performance was partially explained by the conditions, though: as the chanpionship leader, he had to start the rally first, and the "sweeping" imposes its own performance penalty.
"It's the price you have to pay for leading the championship," Loeb accepted. "I'm hoping that I'll pay it for the rest of the season! On the first stage, Terranova, I wasn't in a particularly good rhythm. Gronholm set off at a very fast pace, and because of the three-minute gap between the cars I didn't get his first split time until a third of the way through the stage. I tried to react, but I had already given too much time away."
"Tomorrow, when road conditions are equal for everybody, there are a few more things that we can try," he continued. "I'm going to do everything I can to have a go at reducing the gap. It should be a really good battle, just as myself and Marcus both like it..."
Gronholm's Ford teammate and countryman, Mikko Hirvonen, finished the day in third place, 29 seconds behind Loeb, putting Ford in a strong position to make up ground on Citroen.
"It has been rough and rutted but I like these stages and I've not taken stupid risks," Hirvonen explained. "There were many loose stones this morning and the car's sump guard took a few big hits so I knew I had to be careful."
Behind the leading trio follow Henning Solberg (privateer Peugeot 307 WRC) and Dani Sordo in the second Team Kronos-run Citroen Xsara.
Missing from the top of the leaderboard again is Petter Solberg. Subaru's ace driver and past champion was doing much better on Sardinia, and at midday, was running in fourth, only eight seconds behind Loeb, when misfortune struck. On SS4, he suffered two punctures, costing time, and with no service area at the end of the stage, he had to continue. He as able to change one of the punctured tires at the end of the stage, but suffered another one on SS5.
A fourth puncture on SS6 sealed his fate, and he had to retire his Subaru Impreza WRC. He'll be restarting tomorrow under the SupeRally rules, but with a five-minute penalty.
"It's been a frustrating afternoon and as you'd expect I'm disappointed about not finishing the leg," Solberg commented. "As a team we've got a lot of work to do. For the rest of this rally we'll concentrate on testing and trying different set-ups. We need to find some improvement before Greece."
The rally continues tomorrow with a further six stages on the scenic island.