Ford Focus RS packs first day leaderboard in Spain BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan TomÃ¡nek each held top six places after a fluctuating opening day of the Rally Catalunya...
Ford Focus RS packs first day leaderboard in Spain
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tománek each held top six places after a fluctuating opening day of the Rally Catalunya - Costa Daurada. They led a quartet of Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars in the top eight points-scoring positions after a demanding day's action on fast asphalt mountain roads south of Barcelona.
Gardemeister is fourth in a Castrol-branded Focus RS with Kresta sixth in a similar car. Spain's Dani Solà and Xavier Amigo delighted their fellow countrymen lining the speed tests by winning one special stage in their privately-entered Focus RS - the only car able to break Sebastien Loeb's monopoly of the stage times. They are eighth, one place behind the similar car of Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.
This 15th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship started in the coastal resort of Salou last night, just four days after the previous round ended in Corsica. The competition began in earnest this morning as drivers left the town to face six speed tests covering 155.82km on the smooth and flowing roads of the Tarragona region.
Gardemeister, who was runner-up in Corsica, settled into fifth in his Focus RS, despite a big impact with a stone on the second stage which broke a wheel rim and cracked the car's windscreen. But the dilemmas of making accurate tyre selection in changing weather conditions were all too evident during the second group of asphalt speed tests.
With rain falling, the 30-year-old Finn opted for softer compound Michelin rubber than he used earlier. But when he reached the 28.33km Vilaplana, the rain had stopped, the roads quickly dried in the warm, humid conditions and softer rubber proved the wrong choice. But the following 28.35km Pratdip was either wet or damp for the full distance, and the tyres were ideally suited to the conditions. Tyre choice is always a compromise in such circumstances and Gardemeister fared well to climb to fourth.
"When our safety crew passed through the stages, both were damp," he said. "But the first one was totally dry and we had no proper grip. I tried to look after the tyres to make sure they were OK for the next test. A few kilometres after the start of the second stage it became wet and I was OK. It turned out 70 per cent damp, 20 per cent wet and 10 per cent dry, so my tyres were perfect.
"Today has been good overall but the weather was difficult and I gambled a lot on tyres. There was a lot of gravel in the tight corners but nothing on the fast sections - they are quite strange conditions. The leaderboard is different to Corsica but I'm pleased that I'm up still up there near the top," added Gardemeister.
Kresta completed the opening loop in third. He too opted for softer rubber on the second loop and also softened the suspension on his Focus in expectation of wet conditions, but fared less well. "I destroyed my tyres on the dry roads in stage three and had no grip for the next one," he said. "It was my choice to choose soft tyres and to soften the suspension and it wasn't the correct one. On stage three I spent the entire 28.33km thinking about my tyre choice and my mistake." He dropped to sixth but recovered time on the final two stages this afternoon to close in on those ahead.
"Overall I'm happy with my day and I enjoyed this morning's mixed conditions. Some places were incredibly fast but I'm satisfied with my pace and I will try to maintain that tomorrow," he added.
Solà and Amigo posted third fastest time on the second stage before recording their first ever WRC stage win on the next test. Solà eclipsed his closest rival by more than six seconds over the 28.33km stage, his harder compound tyres working well on the dry roads. Solà powered into seventh before the wet conditions cost him time on the next stage and he eventually ended the day in eighth, just 8.1sec behind Hirvonen.
"It was nice to win the stage and be quicker than the world champion," he said. "I was just doing my job and trying to take as much confidence as I can from my time in the car. That stage felt good and the tyres were perfect. The day has been good, but not good enough yet. I'm still learning and that process will continue tomorrow."
Hirvonen admitted to being uncertain about his choice of tyres. "I just need to get used to asphalt again because I haven't competed on the surface for a year," he said. "I've not tested the Focus RS on asphalt in the wet so I was unsure about exactly what rubber to take and I made mistakes for the first two loops. I finally got the choice right this afternoon!" He is 5.8sec behind Kresta.
News from our Rivals
Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) continued where he left off in Corsica last weekend. The Frenchman was fastest on five of the six stages, only Solà interrupting a clean sweep. François Duval (Citroen) and Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) fought tooth and nail for second. Both spun on the opening stage before Duval initially got the better of his rival. The Finn fought back to move ahead on stage four but Duval retook the place and pulled clear on the final two stages to end the day 18.4sec ahead. Gigi Galli (Mitsubishi) was happier than in Corsica and held fifth but team-mate Harri Rovanperä experienced similar gearshift problems to last weekend and lies 14th. Petter Solberg (Subaru) was the day's leading retirement. The Norwegian crashed into a bank near the finish of stage three and the impact damaged the track control arm at the front right corner. He will restart tomorrow under SupeRally regulations. Team-mate Stéphane Sarrazin also retired, the Frenchman rolling on the last stage. His car caught fire and burned out but there were no injuries.
The second leg covers similar territory north and west of Salou. After leaving the town at 07.30, competitors face three loops of two stages, comprising 134.85km, before returning at 19.11. The first and last loops are identical and three of the six stages are tests already used today, but in the opposite direction.