Weather forecasters help BP-Ford start strongly in Germany BP-Ford World Rally Team made a strong start to Rallye Deutschland to hold third and fourth positions after today's opening leg. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen, leaders of the FIA...
Weather forecasters help BP-Ford start strongly in Germany
BP-Ford World Rally Team made a strong start to Rallye Deutschland to hold third and fourth positions after today's opening leg. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen, leaders of the FIA World Rally Championship drivers' standings, hold third in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are fourth in another Focus RS after both benefited from pinpoint accurate weather forecasting to make a perfect tyre choice in tricky conditions.
After last night's start ceremony at the historic Porta Nigra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in the west German city of Trier, the competition began in earnest this morning. Drivers tackled two identical loops of three asphalt speed tests covering 128.60km in the narrow but fast vineyard roads lining the Mosel river. A dry morning ensured tyre selection was straight forward but heavy showers at lunchtime made the decision for the afternoon special stages far more difficult.
This 10th round of the series is the first on asphalt since the opening event in Monte Carlo in January. It is also the debut on this surface for BP-Ford's 2007-specification Focus RS. Gronholm was too cautious on the opening speed test and was only seventh, 10.2sec from the lead. However, the 39-year-old Finn made small but significant changes to his car's settings which transformed his performance and he climbed to fourth by the close of the opening loop.
"I didn't have any confidence in the first stage and it was hard to find a good feeling," he admitted. "The roads were dry and I didn't push enough because all our asphalt testing was in the wet. I felt I couldn't push to the limit. I made a few small changes to the damper settings before the next stage and it was much better, although I lost a couple of seconds in the last test with a small mistake."
After the lunchtime rain, the team used detailed weather information to predict that conditions would remain dry throughout the afternoon. Gronholm's choice of BFGoodrich's medium-soft compound dry weather tyres, with small cuts hand-carved into the rubber, proved perfect for roads that were basically dry but muddy in shaded areas and covered in dirt dragged onto the stage by cars during the morning pass. He was fourth on all three stages to edge ahead of Dani Sordo in a tense battle, climbing to third to end the day 17.4sec behind leader Francois Duval.
"We had great information on the weather from the team and our meteo people and it was exactly the right tyre choice this afternoon. I was surprised how fast Sebastien Loeb was because he opted for softer tyres expecting rain. I'm pleased we stayed close to the top today and now tomorrow is a really big day. The long Panzerplatte stage on the Baumholder military area has always been good to me and I hope it will be again tomorrow," he added.
Hirvonen felt unwell with flu-like symptoms and the 27-year-old Finn took time to acclimatise to the asphalt stages this morning. He stalled his engine on the second stage and was sixth after the opening loop. Using the same tyres as Gronholm, he won the opening afternoon test and was third on the other two stages to climb to fourth, just 5.3sec behind his colleague.
"This is my best start ever in Germany," he said. "It was hard to find a rhythm in the first stage. I was driving like a beginner! But I softened the suspension settings at lunchtime and had good speed this afternoon. I overshot a junction in the first stage after lunch but incredibly was still fastest. The gaps at the top of the leaderboard aren't that big so it looks good for tomorrow. I haven't felt great today so I hope that after a good sleep tonight I will feel better in the morning."
Abu Dhabi driver Khalid Al Qassimi and Nicky Beech, driving a WRC on asphalt for the first time on only their second outing with BP-Ford, are 13th after climbing the order steadily during the day. "I tried to be cautious this morning," explained 35-year-old Al Qassimi. "The key was to find the right braking point, especially as the roads were quite dirty by the time we started the stages. It's easy to be caught out and I spun on each test in the morning -- three times on stage two. This afternoon I pushed harder in the drier sections as my confidence increased and that can be seen from the times. I've learned a lot again here and I'm happy to be safely through the first day."
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World champion Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) led from the start, despite opting for tyres that were too soft this afternoon when the Frenchman expected rain that did not arrive. He minimised his time loss but Francois Duval (Citroen) closed the gap and edged ahead by 1.3sec on the final test having set two fastest times. Dani Sordo (Citroen) held third until a spin on stage four cost a place but the Spaniard retired on the final stage with engine troubles. That allowed Toni Gardemeister (Citroen) to climb to fifth behind the BP-Ford duo, with Jan Kopecky (Skoda) rounding off the top six. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) set an impressive pace and won the final stage but he slid off the road backwards into a ditch on stage two and dropped eight minutes. Team-mate Petter Solberg (Subaru) was fifth but dropped to ninth after hitting a rock on the penultimate stage and breaking his steering. Henning Solberg (Ford) retired after damaging his right front suspension in the penultimate test while Andreas Mikkelsen (Ford) also went out after crashing and damaging his right rear suspension on stage two.
The second leg is the longest and toughest of the event, featuring two visits to the daunting Baumholder military land. After leaving Trier at 07.00, drivers face two identical loops of four stages split by a return to the city for a lunchtime service. Each loop contains two stages on flowing public road tests in Saarland after which a remote service in Konken precedes two tests on Baumholder. The tank training area contains a multitude of different surfaces, with sand and gravel on the roads making conditions slippery in the dry or the wet. Competitors face eight stages covering 164.86km before returning to Trier for the overnight halt at 19.47.