At the end of the first leg of the Acropolis Rally, the leaders were tightly bunched up, with Sebastien Loeb just six seconds ahead of Marcus Gronholm, and Carlos Sainz and Toni Gardemeister close behind -- plus Gronholm was pledging to attack on...
At the end of the first leg of the Acropolis Rally, the leaders were tightly bunched up, with Sebastien Loeb just six seconds ahead of Marcus Gronholm, and Carlos Sainz and Toni Gardemeister close behind -- plus Gronholm was pledging to attack on the second day.
"Yesterday, even during the second pass, I didn't have a great feeling but today, I'm really confident," Loeb beamed. "I think it's because yesterday we were still sweeping the roads on the second loop. Now, the car is just perfect, I'm happy with our tyre choice and I feel really good."
Gronholm started the day with great hopes of making up the six seconds, but it was Loeb who beat the Finn by six seconds -- again and again, doubling the lead on SS9, adding another six seconds on SS10, and by SS11 the six-second gap had turned into a 25-second abyss.
"On the road section after SS12, I felt the car pull to one side and at first I thought it was a problem with a wheel or a tyre," Gronholm recounted the decisive moments. "But then off the line on the next stage the transmission was slipping, so I knew the problem was much more serious. The only thing I could do was lock the diffs and try to carry on, but the car was extremely difficult to drive."
"We did everything we could but of course we lost a lot of time so the chances to win are gone," the dejected Finn admitted. "Now we just have to concentrate on scoring the most points possible."
So the challenge is now up to his young countryman, Toni Gardemeister, who was battling Sainz all day for third place. But when he finally overtook the veteran Citroen pilot on SS13, it was to claim second position as Gronholm was by then rapidly falling backwards.
"We had a good battle with Carlos," Gardemeister recounted. "We wanted to get ahead of him and I knew that if I pushed a little harder I could do that. I drove over a lot of stones but it seems that this rally is suiting me and, especially, the Focus. You have to take some risks to go fast here!"
Sainz is still in touch with Gardemeister, just 7.7 seconds behind, but the Ford driver has the fire in him, looking for a career-best second-place WRC finish.
Hirvonen, already fifth overnight after the first leg, drove fairly cautiously for much of the day, not wanting to risk a solid points finish on the merciless conditions of the Greek mountain roads.
"We had a steady drive this morning," the 25-year-old Finn explained. "We decided to save the car and drove round all the stones. We needed to be a little quicker this afternoon and take some time out of Rovanpera and that's what we did."
"We had a puncture this afternoon but Michelin's mousse worked well," he detailed his eventful afternoon. "Then on the last stage we twice hit a stone really badly and were lucky to get away with it. The car felt strange afterwards but it didn't slow us down."
Mitsubishi drivers Harri Rovanpera and "Gigi" Galli hold down sixth and seventh places after a solid second day. Rovanpera made some inroads into Hirvonen's advantage in the morning stages, but once Hirvonen picked up the pace, Rovanpera had to be satisfied with holding position. Galli did manage to move up from eighth to seventh, though, with the retirement of Henning Solberg.
The Rovanpera-Galli duo is still ahead of Peugeot and Subaru works drivers Markko Martin and Petter Solberg, both still attempting to recover from a troubled first leg. Unless the two find some additional speed tomorrow, they will have to satisfy themselves with fighting for the final two points-paying positions.
"It's been a very difficult day," Solberg related his experiences after the second leg. "I did my best, and the car has been perfectly reliable, but it was never going to be enough to make up for the road position. It's frustrating to be so uncompetitive on stages that I won last year, but, I suppose not entirely unexpected in the circumstances."
But at the front, Loeb has just four special stages -- albeit four long stages, totaling some 100 km -- to the finish, before claiming a record-setting fifth WRC victory in a row.