Gronholm takes charge as BP-Ford holds sway in Finland BP-Ford World Rally Team continued to dominate Rally Finland today as world championship leaders and pre-event favourites Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen built a solid lead over...
Gronholm takes charge as BP-Ford holds sway in Finland
BP-Ford World Rally Team continued to dominate Rally Finland today as world championship leaders and pre-event favourites Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen built a solid lead over team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen. Gronholm, winner of this ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship six times in the last seven years, won six consecutive speed tests during today's marathon second leg to return to the rally base in Jyvaskyla with a 20.4sec advantage.
The team's new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car won eight of the nine special stages, with Hirvonen victorious on the final two tests, taking the tally to 17 wins from 20 during the rally. The performance of the BP-Ford duo has left closest challenger Sebastien Loeb more than a minute behind 39-year-old Gronholm and 40sec adrift of 27-year-old Hirvonen.
Today was one of the longest days of competition seen in the WRC for many years. The nine stages covered 186.10km, more than half the event's competitive distance. It was also one of the series' classic days, based on smooth, wide and blisteringly fast gravel roads south-west of the host town of Jyvaskyla and enormous crowds packed the forests in glorious sunshine to view the action.
Gronholm and Hirvonen fought tooth and nail for every tenth of a second yesterday and started this morning just 4.4sec apart. Gronholm has an unmatched reputation over today's stages and made his break on the famous Ouninpohja test this morning, an awesome roller-coaster road full of blind crests, jumps and sweeping corners and regarded as rallying's ultimate test of skill and bravery. Faster by almost five seconds, Gronholm moved more than 11sec ahead and stretched his advantage during this afternoon's stages.
"Mikko pushed me very hard and I had to drive flat out," said Gronholm. "I thought I could have taken more time from him but he has been so good that there was no chance. I've never driven through Ouninpohja so fast. It's a crazy stage and we hit 200kph on the straight there. It was quite slippery this morning and I spent a lot of time sideways. The speed in the new car is greater than the previous model because we've been jumping at places where we didn't leave the ground last year.
"There are a lot of fans cheering for me this year and that's great. It looks good but everything still has to work tomorrow so I can't relax yet. Maybe Mikko won't push quite as hard but if he does I will be happy to fight with him," added Gronholm.
Hirvonen admitted to some narrow escapes in Ouninpohja this morning but was satisfied with his pace. "There were some big moments. I pushed too hard and it was scary at times. It's not the most enjoyable test because to be fast a driver has to take so many risks. At one point we came over a crest after a left bend and the rear of the car dropped into a ditch. We escaped but there were so many spectators there that if we had gone off the only thing we could have done was to climb out, stand in the road and take a bow! The speeds were incredible and we were off the road a few times. It was clear from the second pass that I didn't need to be quite that insane!"
"Marcus took a couple of seconds from me on each stage and no matter how hard I tried, I could not go any faster. He has more experience than me on these roads. I'm running out of time because there are not enough stages remaining so I'm not pushing as hard now. But I'm really satisfied because the difference between us is small and if I can fight him here then one day I can win this rally. However, my aim now is to finish with no mistakes," he added.
Team Abu Dhabi pairing Khalid Al Qassimi and Nicky Beech continued to improve on their debut in both a Focus RS and Finland and climbed from 25th to 18th. "It was a long, tiring day but I've learned a lot from it. The stages were hard but great fun. The corners came so fast and I was worried about the jumps in Ouninpohja but they were OK. The car feels great and I'm still getting used to the traction and the grip it gives in corners," said 35-year-old Al Qassimi.
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Third-placed Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was fastest on the opening stage but the Frenchman admitted he could not match the pace of the BP-Ford duo, overshooting a junction on stage 18 in his efforts. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) maintained a comfortable fourth ahead of Henning Solberg (Ford), who climbed from seventh. Xevi Pons (Subaru) was the day's big mover, climbing from 11th to sixth on his debut for his new team. Petter Solberg (Subaru) held fifth initially but a repeat of yesterday's handling difficulties caused the team to withdraw the Norwegian after stage 15 to analyse the problems in more detail. Dani Sordo (Citroen) climbed to fifth before engine problems caused the Spaniard to stop in stage 15. Manfred Stohl (Citroen) retired from eighth when he rolled heavily on the day's second stage while Juha Hanninen (Mitsubishi) stopped with engine problems after stage 14 when also in eighth.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally with just three stages and no opportunity for service after leaving Jyvaskyla in the morning. Following the 09.20 start, the competition takes drivers north and east of the city for 40.75km of action before the finish there at 13.10.