Two Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars held top five positions after today's drama-filled second leg of Spain's Rally Catalunya - Costa Daurada. BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek are fifth after an incident-packed leg. But...
Two Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars held top five positions after today's drama-filled second leg of Spain's Rally Catalunya - Costa Daurada. BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek are fifth after an incident-packed leg. But pride of place among the Ford drivers goes to privately-entered Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen who are fourth in a 2003-specification car on their first asphalt rally for a year.
BP-Ford's Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen held a comfortable fourth until going off the road following a freak brake problem. They eventually regained the asphalt but the time loss plunged them to 14th. A second privately-entered Focus RS, driven by Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr, lies seventh.
Today's action comprised six more asphalt speed tests over the fast mountain roads to the north and west of the rally base of Salou, south of Barcelona. The 134.85km of competition was reduced after the opening 20.01km special stage was cancelled for safety reasons due to the sheer volume of spectators after the passage of only five cars. Mixed weather again made conditions difficult, drivers often making compromise tyre selections for a group of stages that contained both wet and dry roads.
Kresta, sixth after the first day, illustrated the difficulties perfectly on the opening two tests. The 29-year-old Czech opted for harder compound Michelin rubber, aware that they would work well on the opening test which was dry and not as well on the next wetter stage. But when the first stage was cancelled, his plan was ruined. "I'm not happy because we compromised on tyre choice and lost out because a stage was cancelled. I think my choice would have been good if the first stage had run. But the second test was damp or wet with just a small dry section at the finish," he said.
Kresta, climbed to fifth but spins on each of the next two stages cost a place, a position he regained before the cars returned to Salou for the final overnight halt. Rain affected the final few kilometres of the Colldejou stage and he spun his Focus RS on a muddy section, narrowly avoiding a tree. He was luckier in the next stage when he spun across a ditch. "The second incident was almost a big accident," he said. "I made a mistake in a right-left curve and the car bounced across a ditch. It took 20 seconds to regain the road.
"They were similar stages to yesterday's but I couldn't make the same pace and the feeling wasn't as good. Twice we were lucky this afternoon and I was thinking about that on the final two stages. I drove to the maximum that I thought was safe because I need to finish and score points," he said.
Hirvonen started the day in seventh and, in contrast to Kresta, benefited from the stage cancellation. "I was lucky because I chose softer tyres which worked well on the second stage," he said. "They would not have been so good on the first test. After service, there was light rain on the next stage as well and I find it difficult in damp conditions. It's just a lack of confidence because I lack experience in that type of weather."
However, the Finn recovered and powered to fastest time on the final stage. He climbed to third, but incurred a 20sec penalty when an oil pump drive belt was changed in service and exceeded the time allowed. He is just 7.7sec behind Xavi Pons. "That was my second fastest time in the WRC," he said. "When it's dry I can drive fast on the asphalt but if it's wet and damp tomorrow it will be hard to maintain my dry weather pace. I enjoy driving on asphalt because I'm confident with this car and the tyres and to be a WRC driver, you must be fast on both gravel and asphalt."
Gardemeister, like Kresta, lost time this morning after also opting for harder tyres. "I had little grip because the stage that ran was mostly wet and it was hard to drive on asphalt with so much mud on the road. It's a shame I didn't have the opportunity to drive the first stage, our tyres would have worked well. It was an unlucky choice but we thought the roads would dry more quickly."
Two stages later and his podium challenge was over when he slid off the road and more than 12 minutes passed before the 30-year-old Finn could restart. "The brake pedal went to the floor before a fourth gear corner and the car went straight on and became stuck on top of a bank, with all four wheels off the ground. Beyond the bank was a 20 metre vertical drop and I was sitting pressing the brake pedal and waiting to go straight over the top. We were lucky. The spectators did a great job to lift us back onto the road again. It's disappointing because with Gronholm's retirement, I could have been on the podium," he said.
Team director Malcolm Wilson said the brake problem was caused by a rock which had become wedged between a spring and a rear brake calliper, breaking part of the calliper.
Dani Solà and Xavier Amigo maintained their overnight eighth until shortly before the finish of the third stage when the Spanish crew crashed their privately-entered Focus RS into retirement. "About 3km from the finish there was a right corner which led into another right," explained Solà. "I turned into the bend and the rear of the car started to slide. I tried to correct it but the car clipped the side of the mountain and we went off the road. It's a huge disappointment."
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Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) extended his advantage after winning three of the six stages and leads team-mate Francois Duval by 57.8sec. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) was untroubled until the final stage as he maintained third. However, a rising water temperature and water leak signified engine problems and his car stopped on the liaison section to service with a broken radiator. Private entrant Xavi Pons climbed from ninth to third but the Spaniard is just 7.7sec ahead of Hirvonen. Alex Bengue (Skoda) was the day's first retirement, the Frenchman stopping with a broken gearbox on the second stage. Also out is Gigi Galli (Mitsubishi). The Italian posted fastest time on the same stage but crashed into a wall and rolled just after the flying finish.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally, comprising just three speed tests north and west of the rally base in Salou, all of which have already been used. Competitors leave the town at 07.30 and return for the finish ceremony at 13.29 after another 68.08km of competition.