BP-Ford pair in top three as Rally Argentina kicks into gear Both BP-Ford World Rally Team cars hold podium positions after today's second leg of Rally Argentina. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen won two speed tests on their way to second in...
BP-Ford pair in top three as Rally Argentina kicks into gear
Both BP-Ford World Rally Team cars hold podium positions after today's second leg of Rally Argentina. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen won two speed tests on their way to second in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, while team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are third in another Focus RS.
After yesterday's opening leg was virtually wiped out when some drivers were left stranded in Buenos Aires following transport delays, this sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship began in earnest today. Competitors tackled five gravel special stages this morning on the sandy roads of the Punilla Valley, north of the rally base in Carlos Paz, before four more afternoon tests over faster and more flowing roads in the Calamuchita valley to the south -- a total of 159.16km.
In contrast to the sunshine and high temperatures of the last few days, overcast skies and drizzle greeted drivers as they left this morning. Both Gronholm and Hirvonen opted for soft compound BFGoodrich tyres on their Focus RS cars throughout the day, with extra cuts carved in to help clear loose gravel on the drier sections and mud in the wetter areas.
Patchy fog and mud hampered drivers on the vast, open plains this morning but Gronholm climbed from fourth to second on the opening two stages. The 39-year-old Finn then set top three times in each of the next three stages to return to service in Carlos Paz in second, 15.4sec behind Sebastien Loeb. He won two of the four afternoon stages to end the leg 19.2sec behind his French rival.
"It was good to finally get started on the real stages this morning," he said. "The roads were very rough and the underneath of the car was hitting the ground in places. I didn't feel comfortable with that. We had no difficulties with the river crossings in the stages, although we went through a deep crossing after the finish of the first stage this morning and changed the air filter before the next test as a precaution.
"My confidence was good this afternoon and I drove at 110 per cent. The roads were superb and I had really good grip. We made the springs harder at the lunchtime service and the handling was great this afternoon. The gap between myself and Loeb isn't huge and if it is foggy and tricky tomorrow then the time gaps on the long stages could be big," added Gronholm.
Hirvonen set a consistent pace all morning, the 26-year-old Finn setting a quartet of fourth-fastest stage times to return to service in fourth, 41.4sec behind Loeb. Two top three stage times helped the Finn climb to third this afternoon when Petter Solberg retired. He is 1min 25.3sec behind Loeb.
"I just couldn't find the speed," admitted Hirvonen. "I struggled to find the right feeling and rhythm this morning. It was me, not the car. I was either pushing too hard or not hard enough. I just couldn't get it right. Maybe it was a lack of knowledge of the stages but I had no chance to stay with Seb and Marcus. But I'm still in a strong position. I have no fight in front or behind tomorrow so I hope to conserve the position that I have and concentrate on finishing the rally.
"There were huge crowds alongside the stages. It's great to see so many people, especially after the disappointment they had yesterday. The roads were great also. I love the fast sections and the jumps and when there is a big crowd there to watch it's a real inspiration," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said: "It has been a good day for us. Marcus has been involved in an exciting battle and it's not all over yet with four long stages to come tomorrow. Mikko improved as the day progressed and he is in a comfortable position to score good points so long as he doesn't make any mistakes."
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Championship leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was fastest on seven of the nine stages to end with a 19.2sec advantage over Gronholm. Petter Solberg (Subaru) settled into third until engine problems sidelined him on the penultimate test, allowing Hirvonen to climb into the top three. Dani Sordo (Citroen) and Chris Atkinson (Subaru) fought for fifth, the Spaniard seeing off the Australian's challenge until hydraulic troubles on the final stage cost more than 90 seconds and he slipped to eighth. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Henning Solberg (Ford) both moved ahead of Atkinson, who suffered handling problems, this afternoon. Matthew Wilson (Ford) retired on the opening stage with electrical troubles while Luis Perez Companc (Ford) stopped on the same test with broken rear suspension after hitting rocks.
The final leg has been extended to ensure the rally completes the required two-thirds distance to award full points. After an earlier than scheduled 05.59 start, drivers now tackle two identical loops of the Giulio Cesare and El Condor stages, high among the moonlike landscape of the Traslasierra mountains. Rocky and narrow, they are two of the most famous and toughest tests in the championship and peak at 2195m. After service in Carlos Paz, drivers complete a second pass of the Cordoba super special stage before the finish there at 13.15. They face 82.40km of competition.