Marcus Gronholm was worried that his tires might not hold up under the afternoon heat in the demanding conditions of the Acropolis Rally. As it turned out, though, the Ford Focus RS pilot was actually able to stretch his lead out to 43.3 seconds...
Marcus Gronholm was worried that his tires might not hold up under the afternoon heat in the demanding conditions of the Acropolis Rally. As it turned out, though, the Ford Focus RS pilot was actually able to stretch his lead out to 43.3 seconds at the finish of the second leg of the World Rally Championship event.
"I was conscious of looking after the tires towards the end of the long stage," the Finn explained at the mid-day break. "That will be really hard this afternoon because it will be rougher and hotter and it's hard not to puncture when there are so many stones. I just want to finish the long stage safely because 16 seconds is not a big lead on a 48 km test."
While Gronholm was looking after his tires, his archrival Sebastien Loeb was on a charge, setting fast sector times on Agii Theodori 2 (SS14), the first of the afternoon stages. With little tread left on the tires for most of the works teams, the stage proved pivotal. Gronholm's care took him to the stage finish, some 20 seconds ahead of Petter Solberg, while Loeb ran into a rock some 9 km before the end of the stage, costing the Frenchman close to a minute -- and losing him 30 minutes on the stage.
"This afternoon I saw Loeb's first split time on the long stage was faster than mine," Gronholm recounted the events. "However, I wanted to save my tires and not destroy then early in the stage so I paced myself. The rock base was really hard and I didn't want to spin my tires and wear them out so I didn't attack."
The other beneficiary of Loeb's mishap was Solberg, who battled with Loeb throughout the day for control of second place. Loeb's punctures gave him a solid 14.3-second edge over the Citroen driver.
However, Solberg damaged a shock absorber on his Subaru Impreza WRC on the following stage, and the damage started affecting the handling of his car as the day wore on, costing him increasingly more time on each stage, and by SS16, he was 23 seconds off Loeb's stage time. The Norwegian veteran finished the leg in third place, 24.3 seconds behind Loeb, making for a tough challenge for the final day.
"Without the damper problem this afternoon I think we could have had a much better result," Solberg reflected. "From the point of view of the team and Subaru we can be happy with what has been achieved. Again, we showed we have the performance to take on Marcus and Sebastien and that's very important for the future. But this rally is certainly not over yet. I'm still going to fight tomorrow and as we saw this afternoon, things can change around very quickly."
Loeb's goal for the coming day is to defend his second position, as he believes that Gronholm has escaped too far up the road to be able to challenge him on the final leg. In spite of taking four stage wins on the day to Gronholm's two, the Finn grew his lead by some 34 seconds today, largely on the strength of his performance in the two passes through the long Agii Theodori stage.
"I was pushing very, very hard because I believed I could open up a big gap over this 48.88 km stage," Loeb recalled the drama of SS14. "But ten or so kilometres from the finish I realized that both my front tires had punctu red. Thanks to the BFGoodrich's run-flat mousse system, I was able to reach the end of the stage but I was forced to slow my pace quite a lot."
Mikko Hirvonen, driving the second works Ford Focus RS WRC entry, had his own drama in the morning, as a mistake in the pace notes cost Hirvonen heavily on the first pass through Agii Theodori. Gronholm's younger teammate ran off the road at high speed, coming to a halt 60 meters from the road -- having amazingly avoided all trees and rocks along the way.
"I went off on a flat-out fourth gear right-hand bend at about 150 km/h," he recounted his off-road adventure. "I went about 60m off the road into the trees and bushes in the forest. I had no idea where I was and had to find my way back to the road. It was the fastest part of the stage and I was just waiting to hit something."
"I was very lucky because the only damage was a broken windscreen," Hirvonen continued. "After that I was OK in the shade but in the sun it was hard to see through the cracks. The roof ventilation flap closed and we had no air in the car for the rest of the stage, but a lot of dust. It was extremely hot."
With the WRC service precluding a windshield replacement, Hirvonen had to drive until the mid-day break while squinting through the fractured window. To make things worse, he suffered a puncture shortly after the forest excursion, and the run-flat mousse failed 5 km from the stage finish, forcing him to limp to the end of the stage.
Hirvonen ended up losing a minute on SS10 alone, and a further 20 seconds on the three remaining morning stages. An impact with a rock on SS14 sealed Hirvonen's fate, at least for the time being, and he sits two-and-a-half minutes adrift of his teammate, in fourth place, going into Sunday's final stages.
Tire problems also proved pivotal for Stobart M-Sport's young hope, Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala, who was running on a softer tire compound, had a puncture-filled day. First he had one on the opening SS10 -- the first pass through Agii
Theodori -- where the run-flat mousse system failed, forcing him to change the tire, and costing him nearly four minutes. When the teams returned for the second pass, SS14, Latvala suffered not one but three punctures, dropping a further ten minutes and out of the points-paying positions.
"We got a puncture halfway through the first stage and the mousse system didn't work properly so we had to stop and change the tire and lost nearly three minutes," Latvala recounted. "Then at the start of the last stage we hit a big jump and landed on only one wheel and nearly rolled over, it was a bit of a scare for me. It was a really hard day, one of the hardest in the championship. I felt a little exhausted after the long stage with our problems with the punctures and I just wanted to concentrate after this and put in some fast times. I did this and got a third fastest time; this was the main positive thing for the day."
Latvala's M-Sport teammate, Henning Solberg -- the older brother of Petter -- holds down fifth place after a
hard battle with Subaru's Chris Atkinson throughout the day. Atkinson looked to have the edge in the afternoon, but by SS16 Atkinson's Subaru, too, was suffering from shock absorber problems, and the young Australian lost a minute to Solberg's Ford Focus RS WRC on the stage.
"Things didn't really go to plan as the day went on," Atkinson grimaced. "I'm happy with the way I was driving, and it's clear that the basic car package is improving all the time, but the rough conditions gave us a few mechanical problems and prevented us from pushing for a better result. But there's still the chance that we can have a better day tomorrow, so we'll do our best and see what happens."
Jan Kopecky sits in eighth for Skoda, and Manfred Stohl holds down the final points-paying position for Kronos Citroen.
The rally finishes tomorrow with four road stages covering 75.74 km, and a final stadium segment in the olympic hippodrome.