Hirvonen in charge as BP-Ford dominates leg two in Australia Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen continue to lead Rally Australia after today's second leg. The BP-Ford World Rally Team pair returned to Perth this evening having extended their ...
Hirvonen in charge as BP-Ford dominates leg two in Australia
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen continue to lead Rally Australia after today's second leg. The BP-Ford World Rally Team pair returned to Perth this evening having extended their opening day advantage to 32.3sec in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. The Finns, chasing their maiden victory in the FIA World Rally Championship, controlled their pace over the slippery gravel tracks in Western Australia on a day when the team won eight of the nine speed tests.
Team-mates Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen continued to fight back up the order after yesterday morning's roll. The Finns, who began the day in 18th in their Focus RS, won five speed tests to climb to seventh. They remain on course for a fifth place finish, their target after losing 11 minutes in yesterday's crash.
Today's route initially took competitors 100km south-east of Perth to Bannister Plantation for a group of five special stages. Huge crowds gathered at the famous Bunnings jumps and watersplash, where cars were launched high into the air before plunging down into the river crossing at the bottom of the hill. Competitors then repeated yesterday afternoon's tests east of Perth before two final passes over the city's Gloucester Park trotting track. They tackled 120.36km of competition.
Hirvonen won three of the five Bannister stages to increase his advantage by a slender 0.2sec. Although the tracks were covered in a thick coat of loose gravel, earlier cars swept much of it away and the wider roads left more room for manoeuvre. A heavy rain shower during the lunchtime service compacted the gravel on the more technical afternoon tests, and there was more grip for the 26-year-old Finn than there had been on the same roads yesterday. He was second on both tests and ended the day by sharing another stage victory with Grönholm at Gloucester Park.
"I've had a fantastic day with no problems and I really enjoyed it," said Hirvonen. "I've proved that I can drive fast enough to challenge for victory. I've watched Petter Solberg's split times and driven accordingly. It's nice to be able to defend a lead and I've proved something to myself under pressure. I'm still not really thinking about actually winning. I'm just trying to maintain a good speed and keep Petter behind us.
"I expected Petter to push hard this morning but I knew those stages well and I was up for the challenge. I must think about manufacturers' points and not make any mistakes. If he catches me tomorrow then I will not risk everything to stay ahead because the points are more important than the win. Tomorrow's stages will be tricky but I'm not worrying about them. I will sleep like a baby tonight!" he added.
Grönholm was fastest over two of the morning tests in Bannister to complete a clean sweep there for the BP-Ford team. The 38-year-old Finn won three more stages this afternoon as he charged back up the order and ended the leg just 39.3sec away from fifth place.
"I'm closing on fifth, which is where we calculated we could climb to after the accident," he said. "Tomorrow I will continue to drive at my own speed and hope to get there. I don't think I can get any higher so anything more would be a bonus. It's not so good to be so far behind but it was my mistake and I must pay the penalty.
"I've not pushed to the maximum, but driven quite fast and watched what everyone else was doing," "The car felt fine and although there was still some dust getting in, it was nothing like as bad as yesterday. The roads were softer and there was more grip than during the first leg. There was plenty of loose gravel but my running position meant the roads had cleaned. My back is fine but I hurt my shoulder when I hit a stone in a corner. It's an old motocross injury, but it will be OK."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said he hoped tomorrow would be a carbon copy of today. "The cars have been great and we have dominated the day, having only been beaten on one stage. Tomorrow will be difficult and on this rally a lot often happens on the final day, so we can't be complacent," he added.
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Petter Solberg (Subaru) remained Hirvonen's main challenger. The Norwegian won one speed test but was unable to make inroads to the BP-Ford driver's advantage. Xevi Pons (Citroen) began the day with a slender advantage over Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) in third, but the Austrian driver moved ahead on the second test and extended his lead over Pons to 20.1sec. Production Cup driver Toshi Arai (Subaru) climbed to fifth on the opening stage and pulled clear of his rivals before rolling into retirement this afternoon. Argentine Marcos Ligato (Mitsubishi) replaced him in the top five. All yesterday's leading retirements returned to action today under SupeRally, with the exception of Henning Solberg (Peugeot), whose car was too badly damaged.
The final day is the shortest of the rally, but still contains 103.32km of competition in the forests near Mundaring, east of Perth. Drivers leave the city at 06.00 and complete two identical loops of stages, split by service back at Langley Park, before the finish ceremony in Perth at 14.30.