Marcus Gronholm is still struggling in the slippery conditions of the Monte Carlo Rally, but the Finn is focused on two things other than stage wins: making it to the finish, and keeping Sebastien Loeb behind him until the end of this, the first...
Marcus Gronholm is still struggling in the slippery conditions of the Monte Carlo Rally, but the Finn is focused on two things other than stage wins: making it to the finish, and keeping Sebastien Loeb behind him until the end of this, the first event of the 2006 World Rally Championship.
"It's hard to judge what is a good pace," the Ford Focus RS WRC pilot explained. "I'm looking at Loeb's times and calculating the pace at which I need to drive. I'm not trying to beat his times. I hope I don't make any mistakes tomorrow because in these conditions that is so easy to do."
Indeed, Gronholm drove at a steady pace all day, setting two second-fastest stage times and two thirds in the five stages -- stage 11 was canceled because of civilian traffic problems. Meanwhile, Loeb was pushing hard, and won each one of the five stages today.
But Loeb made the critical mistake on Friday's final stage, spinning his Kronos Citroen Xsara off the road and down a hillside. While his crew was able to make repairs overnight, he incurred a five-minute penalty for not finishing the stage, dropping him into eighth, nearly four minutes behind Gronholm.
The five stage wins moved him easily up the leaderboard, and he gained just over a minute on Gronholm to close to within 2:41 of the lead. But with just one day remaining, the Frenchman would have to make up an average of over 25 seconds per stage to challenge for the lead.
Gronholm, who has never yet won a WRC event on tarmac, let alone stood on the top step of the podium at Monte Carlo, is frustrated by the tricky conditions brought on by the icy roads.
"I spun just after the top of Turini," Gronholm recounted the day's events. "The conditions there were terrible, the worst I have ever seen them, and we have to go over there twice more tomorrow so anything can still happen. The Focus has again been really good today but the conditions mean that it's not enjoyable to drive this rally, because on every corner I'm waiting for something to happen."
But while Loeb is flying at a speed all his own, Gronholm is more than keeping pace with the rest of the field. From a lead of 1:23 on Subaru's Chris Atkinson, he has built the buffer to over two minutes, now over his fellow countryman Toni Gardemeister, driving a 2006-spec Peugeot 307 WRC for Astra Racing.
Gardemeister claimed second spot as Atkinson's speed faltered on the second day, the Australian giving up over two-and-a-half minutes to Gardemeister, who is having the best Monte Carlo of his career so far.
"You couldn't tell until the end of the stage whether you were fast or slow," the Finn explained. "The conditions were really difficult. All the time I felt like I was driving too slowly."
The claim for the third spot on the podium now belongs to Manfred Stohl, in another privateer Peugeot 307 WRC, entered by OMV Peugeot Norway.
Loeb's performance today moved him up to fourth place, 33 seconds behind Stohl, but he is certain to be challenging for the podium places tomorrow. A fourth consecutive win does seem unlikely, though.
"I'll have to wait and see how the situation changes after the morning stages," Gardemeister mused. "If it's possible to keep second place, I'm willing to take some risks."
Stephane Sarrazin has his works Subary Impreza WRC 2006 in fifth place, over a minute and a half ahead of Atkinson, who is driving a 2005-spec Impreza.