The Finn was flying again on the opening day of the Acropolis Rally, placing his Ford Focus just over 26 seconds on the top of the World Rally Championship leaderboard in the eighth round of competition this season. Marcus Gronholm has been in...
The Finn was flying again on the opening day of the Acropolis Rally, placing his Ford Focus just over 26 seconds on the top of the World Rally Championship leaderboard in the eighth round of competition this season.
Marcus Gronholm has been in this position before, winning the first two rounds to start at the year on a positive note, but since then it has been a Sebastien Loeb show. However, the Focus driver was again the fastest on the first day in Rally Sardinia in mid-May, until problems sidelined his chase for a third WRC win this season.
"The car is fantastic and I have the tools to beat Solberg and Loeb -- and that's a good feeling," Gronholm grinned. "I made a good start this morning but I knew that I had to build on that. I was leading by 40 seconds after the first morning on the last rally in Sardinia. But by Saturday night I was at home watching Finland win the Eurovision Song Contest on television, so that's how quickly things can change!"
Peter Solberg, who has had a dismal year thus far, sits second overall, a mere 9.2 seconds in front of Loeb -- but for Solberg, today was a good run, one he has not seen since Rally Mexico when he led on the first day before he, again, saw his hopes dashed.
"Today I felt the car and new Pirelli tyres were very good and gave me the chance for a good battle," said Solberg. "The last three stages of the day were difficult to drive as we took an extra spare wheel for safety after the punctures this morning. That's Greece, though, and it is the same for everyone, but it made the car a bit more tricky to drive and not so good to attack."
Apart from Gronholm and Solberg enjoying the rocky gravel terrain of the Greek roads, Loeb had the additional disadvantage of having to "sweep" the stages by starting first.
"I knew that I would be sweeping the road clean and dropping time," the defending world champion said. "But I expected a bit more from the second loop. It's not through lack of trying, though. I didn't go for the new BFGoodrich H2 tyres, but equally my tyre choice seemed good. I gave it everything I could, and I wasn't alone in that."
With the points leader just off the pace in third, can Gronholm or Solberg take a moment to relish their positions? Or will they need to continue to go all out tomorrow and Sunday to keep the Kronos Racing Citroen ace from nothing his sixth straight victory this year and his 26th career win that will tie Carlos Sainz for the all-time win record.
This year's rally in Athens, Greece opened Thursday night with the special first stage of only 2.80km in the Olympic Stadium. Loeb bested Gronholm who was slightly quicker than his teammate, Mikko Hirvonen -- who, in turn, led the the gaggle of young guns: Francois Duval, Dani Sordo, Chris Atkinson and Henning Solberg.
"I made some changes to the suspension settings at lunchtime and they worked well this afternoon," Hirvonen recounted. "Conditions were better than I expected this morning but they were rougher this afternoon and tomorrow's leg will be rougher still. This morning I was driving in 'safe' mode, the kind of pace I used in Sardinia, so I pushed harder to try to increase my advantage over the cars behind."
The star for the Subaru World Rally Team, P. Solberg, was back in 13th last night. This morning's first stage, the SS2 11.44km first pass of Imittos, showed signs of how the day would progress. Gronholm was fastest followed by Solberg and Loeb -- the three experienced aces showing the way, with the young guns not far off the pace.
Outside of the fourth stage where Duval placed his Skoda ahead of Loeb, the rest of the stages were like a rerun of the second special: Gronholm, Solberg, Loeb. The only changes came behind the top three.
Hirvonen finished fourth in leg one, over 40 seconds adrift of Loeb, followed by Duval, Manfred Stohl (OMV Peugeot Norway) with his teammate H. Solberg in seventh.
Rounding out the top ten were two Citroens: Toni Gardmeister and Sordo. Finally, Jussi Valimaki -- who finished fifth in Sardinia, in a privateer Mitsubishi -- was tenth for the day.