WRC

Rally Finland: Ford leg one summary

Märtin and Tuohino shine for Ford in sunny Finland BP-Ford World Rally Team ended today's breathless opening leg of the Rally Finland in third and fourth overall. Markko Märtin and Michael Park, still recovering from last month's massive ...

Märtin and Tuohino shine for Ford in sunny Finland

BP-Ford World Rally Team ended today's breathless opening leg of the Rally Finland in third and fourth overall. Markko Märtin and Michael Park, still recovering from last month's massive accident in Argentina, lie third in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Janne Tuohino and Jukka Aho were outstanding on only their second drive for the official Ford squad to lie just one place behind in their similar Focus RS after a fast and furious day's driving. François Duval and Stéphane Prévot, in a third BP-Ford Focus RS, are not nominated for points here but lie eighth.

This ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship lived up to its reputation as one of the year's classic rallies. Huge crowds flocked into the countryside around the rally base of Jyväskylä to view 10 speed tests covering 119.65km. Smooth, flowing gravel roads have earned this event its title as the fastest in the 16-round series and average speeds exceeded 127kph as drivers fought for every tenth of a second. The ground temperatures were as hot as the action, exceeding 30°C during the afternoon.

Rally Finland is the most technical round of the year and precision driving and bravery are crucial. Blind crests frequently hide bends so pace notes must be extremely precise and experience of the roads offers a huge advantage. Finns Tuohino and Aho were drafted into the Ford squad because of their familiarity with the roads and conditions and they did not disappoint. Twenty-nine-year-old Tuohino grabbed a top five placing on the opening stage and climbed to third during the afternoon. However, a spin on the final stage dropped him behind Märtin.

"We set good times without taking stupid risks," said Tuohino. "But the competition is so tight that we do have to push hard and I entered a few junctions a little too fast. The final stage was really slippery and I had to spin the car to avoid hitting a barrier. Otherwise I have had no other problems and the car has been nice to drive. Tomorrow we will drive flat out, but again I won't take any unnecessary risks because I want to be in the top three at the end of the day."

Märtin and Park eased themselves into the event, trying to rebuild their confidence after the Argentina crash. The 28-year-old Estonian driver ended the opening stage in eighth and progressed as the day continued. He posted four consecutive second fastest times before claiming fastest on the final super special stage, defeating rally leader Marcus Grönholm in their head-to-head battle around the Killeri trotting track.

"I'm really surprised to be on the podium because today has been the toughest of my career," said Märtin. "I'm still recovering after the accident and don't feel 100 per cent. Because of that, I didn't feel confident in driving flat out but this is the kind of rally where I have to drive at maximum speed all the time. It was hard to concentrate but I've improved as the day has gone on and won the last stage. It's hard when your head wants to do one thing and your body can't keep up. I was shocked when I realised this morning how difficult it was to drive.

"I haven't taken any risks but we had a heavy landing after a jump in the Ruuhimäki stage. Last year we flew perfectly there but this time the car landed nose down. The car was OK but it wasn't nice to land looking down at the ground. Tomorrow's stages are quite difficult and I will need to drive flat out again all day. Marcus has a good lead and it will be hard to catch him but I think second is possible," he added.

Duval and Prévot were released from the pressure of having to score points on an event in which the 23-year-old Belgian driver lacks experience. His aim was to learn more about the Finnish roads and perfect his pace notes for the future. Duval was a quick learner because after sampling this morning's stages, he posted third and fifth fastest times when the tests were repeated this afternoon.

"Our pace notes are much better than last year but they are still too slow in places so we have made changes as we go along," said Duval. "I'm driving better this year than I did in 2003 but still only at 95 per cent and I will keep the same pace tomorrow. The stages are nice to drive but are so fast. It has been so quick today that my body feels hotter here than in the heat of Turkey in June!"

News from our Rivals

Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) dominated the early action, the Finn winning four of the first five tests. However, he rolled 5km after the start of Ruuhimäki and retired at the following service park as the car was too badly damaged. Team-mate Marcus Grönholm moved to the front and set four consecutive fastest times en route to an overnight lead of 18.3sec. Another team-mate, Sebastian Lindholm, had been Rovanperä's closest pursuer but he slipped behind Grönholm and remains second. Finns Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) and Jani Paasonen (Skoda) had an exciting battle for fifth, the latter enjoying a superb debut drive. However, Hirvonen hit a barrier on the final stage and retired with broken suspension and radiator. Rally Argentina winner Carlos Sainz (Citroen) led the French team's challenge in fifth, edging ahead of Paasonen on the final stage, while team-mate and championship leader Sebastien Loeb found the going hard. He had the worst of the conditions by running first through the stages on loose gravel and his lack of experience in Finland also hindered him. He is seventh. Petter Solberg (Subaru) was the day's other major retirement. The Norwegian was third when he slid into a ditch on stage four, hitting a rock in the grass which damaged the suspension too badly to continue.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg can be regarded as the classic day of the 2004 season. Based on wide, flowing roads south-west of Jyväskylä, it comprises 167.80km and includes some of rallying's greatest speed tests. It includes two passes over the awesome 33.24km Ouninpohja, a roller-coaster stretch of road full of blind crests and huge jumps that is viewed by many as the sport's greatest test of driving skill. It is also an incredibly long day. Competitors depart Jyväskylä at 05.48, returning for the overnight halt at 21.52.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team