Just as Marcus Gronholm was starting to look secure in the lead of the Rally of Turkey, things took a turn for the dramatic. Gronholm held a 45-second lead in his Ford Focus WRC in the World Rally Championship event after 13 stages, when hail and...
Just as Marcus Gronholm was starting to look secure in the lead of the Rally of Turkey, things took a turn for the dramatic. Gronholm held a 45-second lead in his Ford Focus WRC in the World Rally Championship event after 13 stages, when hail and snow began to fall, opening the door for the second-placed Peter Solberg.
"Conditions were a nightmare this afternoon," Gronholm recounted. "It was so slippery that it was almost impossible to stand up, yet we had to drive as fast as we could. It was incredible to see hail on the stages and with plenty of slippery stones on the inside of the corners, it felt like I was skating at times this afternoon."
Solberg, hungry for success after a frustrating 2006 season that has seen the Subaru pilot shut out of the win column, saw his chance, and went on the attack. The Norwegian took nearly ten seconds off Gronholm's lead on SS14, and suddenly Gronholm was looking vulnerable.
Attacks come with risks, though, and this one ended up badly for Solberg. About 4 km into SS15, Solberg hit a large rock, and spun off into a ditch. The car was in a bad enough position that Solberg and co-pilot Phil Mills were unable to get it back on the road. Although they may be able to restart in tomorrow's final leg, they will be out of contention with a 10-minute penalty under the SupeRally rules.
"We came around a corner and the car hit a rock in the road." Solberg explained. "We bounced off the stage and into a ditch. I can't believe this after we've had so many positives earlier in the rally. It was an incredible feeling to again be fighting at the top, and it's very good to see that everyone's hard work is showing with more speed."
Solberg's retirement meant clear sailing for Gronholn in the day's final stage, the 5.2-km Akdeniz University superspecial. The Finn took it easy, finishing the short stage in 11th place, 6.9 seconds behind his teammate and second-place man, Mikko Hirvonen.
"I'm in a pretty good position so I hope that tomorrow I can keep my lead," the rally leader mused. "It is better to have a big lead than a 30-second advantage. Petter was pushing quite hard and I needed to keep a close eye on his times because he was on my mind quite a bit."
In the end, Gronholm won only two of the day's seven stages -- Solberg and Hirvonen also took two each, and Kronos Racing's Daniel Sordo the final one -- but it was quite enough. Building on his 25-second lead from the first leg, Gronholm steadily pulled away from Solberg until the snow appeared. And, after Solberg's retirement, he now holds a two-minute lead over Hirvonen.
Hirvonen has had a relatively lonely rally so far: while he has not been able to match Gronholm's or Solberg's pace, neither has anyone else been able to threaten him. Going into the final leg, he is 40 seconds clear of OMV Peugeot's Henning Solberg.
"I was driving on the maximum most of the time this morning, although there were some places where I could have pushed a little more," he explained. "Henning was pushing hard behind me so I couldn't afford to make mistakes. On the last few events I have been able to drive cautiously to save the car but that's not the case here. Once I heard Petter had retired I eased off, but that's not always a good thing because you lose your rhythm."
Solberg, who is now upholding the Solberg family honor after his younger brother's retirement, is in third place after a strong day, but will have to fight hard to stay on the podium for the remainder of the rally.
"There is still a lot of hard work ahead," the elder Solberg said. "Especially when it rains since we only have used rain tyres and Atkinson is just 18.4 seconds behind us. But we are determined not to let the podium slip away. We're on track and know that we can get there under our own steam."
And speaking of upholding the honor, for the Subaru team it's on Chris Atkinson's shoulders. The young Australian was on a charge today, moving from seventh to fourth on the day. Having cut Henning Solberg's lead in half, from 36 seconds to 18, he has a shot at his first podium finish on the year. However, with only 50 km of stage distance on Sunday, he has his work cut out for him.
"The conditions on those last two mountain stages were very difficult," he recounted. "We went for a steady run and were cautious trying not to get caught out by the snow, ice or mud. Tomorrow we will just continue this approach and try and make up more time and positions."
Atkinson himself is threatened by the fifth-placed Kosti Katajamaki, who is making his last scheduled appearance in the WRC this year in Stobart's M-Sport 2004-spec Ford Focus. Katajamaki started the day in fifth place as well, but lost time to a puncture and a handbrake malfunction, dropping down to seventh place by SS13. A late charge in snow -- Katajamaki's natural element, surely -- moved the young Finn back past Xavier Pons, and set the stage for a fight with Atkinson tomorrow.
"I am happy with today and to retain my fifth position overnight. Tomorrow I will be pushing hard to try and catch Chris Atkinson," he explained. "It's great to show that I can be as quick as the regular drivers in the WRC."
Pons, who is 24 seconds behind Katajamaki, is the highest-placed driver for Kronos Racing, sitting in sixth place. Unfortunately for the Belgian team, which is badly hurt by the absence of the injured Sebastien Loeb, Pons is at the wheel of the team's third car and will not score manufacturers' championship points.
However, Colin McRae, filling in for Loeb, is in seventh -- fifteen seconds behind Pons -- so he will pick up those points. Daniel Sordo, in the second nominated entry, is well back in tenth place, nearly four and a half minutes behind Gronholm's pace.
Sandwiched between the Kronos drivers, and in a fight for the final drivers' championship point, are Francois Duval, driving a First Motorsports Skoda Fabia WRC, and OMV Peugeot's second driver, Manfred Stohl. The two are separated by just 9.5 seconds, with Sordo another six seconds behind Stohl.
"We had to deal with absolutely everything," Stohl recounted. "First dry conditions, then rain and finally even snowfall. And when the windscreen washer system went dry on us on the 15th special stage I had to think a long time whether I had ever encountered anything the like this before! I hope the weather forecast will prove right and the sun will shine on Sunday. That would definitely heighten our chances."
Given that Stohl took ten seconds off Duval in SS15 alone, and Stohl 33 seconds, another battle is set for tomorrow for that final point: Duval will surely have to drive like a man possessed for the final three stages to retain his position.