GrÃ¶nholm leads Rally Argentina before Ford duo sidelined BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus GrÃ¶nholm and Timo Rautiainen led Rally Argentina for much of today's opening leg until problems halted their Focus RS World Rally Car this ...
Grönholm leads Rally Argentina before Ford duo sidelined
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen led Rally Argentina for much of today's opening leg until problems halted their Focus RS World Rally Car this afternoon. The Finns won two speed tests to build an advantage on this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship but their hopes of a third win of the season were dashed. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen were third in a similar Focus RS when engine troubles brought their day to a premature end.
The grassy pampas of Córdoba province, 700km north of Buenos Aires, hosted most of the leg one action. Drivers tackled eight gravel special stages north of Córdoba itself, covering 155.23km, with just a solitary 30 minute service break in the middle of the day. Huge crowds made an early start to Argentina's holiday weekend to venture into the hills to watch the action amid spectacular scenery.
However, the competition began last night when Córdoba's soccer stadium was ablaze with colour and noise as more than 40,000 fans generated an electric atmosphere for two short specially constructed tests, played out under giant floodlights in front of a live worldwide TV audience.
The roasting heat of the last few days gave way to cooler temperatures as fog and rain greeted the drivers this morning. Grönholm held a 1.8sec advantage after defeating world champion Sébastien Loeb in both last night's head-to-head contests. The 38-year-old lost the lead briefly but a stage win and two second fastest times promoted Grönholm back to the front after today's initial four stages.
But two tests later, on stage eight, Grönholm stopped. "About 8km after the start of the stage I came into a corner and the car stalled. I restarted the engine but could not select any gears. I locked the differentials and covered another 300 metres but then we came to another tight corner and that was it. I don't know what the problem was but obviously I'm really disappointed to retire when things were going so well," he said. It is not yet known whether the car will restart under SupeRally rules tomorrow.
"I was leading but the margin wasn't big enough to call comfortable. I pushed hard this morning without taking risks. It wasn't a problem running second through the stages despite the loose gravel on the surface. In fact, I think there was little difference in conditions between first and second on the road," he added.
Hirvonen and Lehtinen started fourth in their similar Focus RS after last night's tests. They dropped to fifth on today's opening stage but consistently fast times enabled them to regain fourth on the final test of the opening loop. Grönholm's retirement lifted the 25-year-old Finn into third but he hit trouble after the finish of stage eight.
"About 1km after the finish, on the liaison section, the engine dropped onto three cylinders," explained Hirvonen. "We stopped to change the spark plugs but that didn't cure the problem. We continued a little further and stopped again to change the electronic control unit. That didn't work either. So with two stages left before service, we decided to stop so that we didn't damage the engine further and the team could examine it to see if we can start tomorrow under SupeRally."
"I drove at a steady pace this morning, which was the plan. The roads were soft and there was no advantage in running further down the start order. They didn't clean like we thought they would, they just became softer," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a disappointing day. "We've had another rally in which we held the lead and we have again proved the pace of both the cars and the drivers. Marcus was leading when he retired while Mikko was under orders to drive steadily and was in a strong position from a team point of view. Both these issues are different and we've never experienced them in testing. But with no testing allowed before long haul rallies, there was always the possibility that something could catch us out," he said.
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Championship leader Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) spun and stalled his car's engine on this morning's opening stage. However, the Frenchman inherited the lead when Grönholm retired and ended the leg 19.8sec ahead of Petter Solberg (Subaru), having set four fastest times. The Norwegian took the lead on this morning's opening stage but then hit a gate post early in stage four which broke co-driver Phil Mills' window. They also incurred a 10 second penalty for arriving late at a time control when their car fell off its jack while they were changing tyres before stage nine. Gigi Galli (Peugeot) lies third after a troublefree day on only his second rally in the car. Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) celebrated his 100th WRC start with fastest time on the final stage to hold fourth ahead of team-mate Henning Solberg, who survived tyre troubles, a broken differential and a small off this morning. Another major retirement was Xavi Pons (Citroen) who stopped with an oil leak after hitting a rock early in stage six and his car briefly caught fire. He will restart tomorrow.
The second leg is divided into two very different sections. After restarting at 06.39, drivers repeat four speed tests used today in the sandy Punilla Valley. After service competitors then head south to tackle four faster, more flowing stages in the Calamuchita Valley before returning to Córdoba for the final overnight halt at 19.54. The eight stages cover 150.41km.