MÃ¤rtin extends Ford's lead on dramatic day in Rally Finland Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park increased their narrow overnight lead to more than a minute during a gripping second leg of the Rally Finland today. The Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers...
Märtin extends Ford's lead on dramatic day in Rally Finland
Markko Märtin and Michael Park increased their narrow overnight lead to more than a minute during a gripping second leg of the Rally Finland today. The Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers were engaged in another daylong fight through the fastest speed tests in the FIA World Rally Championship season and it was only in the final few kilometres this evening that their Focus RS World Rally Car pulled clear of the chasing pack.
Traditionally the middle leg of this ninth round of the championship is one of the highlights of the season and this year proved no exception. Wide, flowing roads and roller-coaster jumps attract massive crowds and more than one driver regards the awesome Ouninpohja special stage, tackled twice today, as the best speed test in the world. Drivers faced seven stages covering 167.92km west of the rally base in Jyväskylä and although temperatures were far from warm, the rain which fell yesterday kept away to provide dry conditions.
The lead changed hands twice yesterday during an enthralling battle between the Ford BP duo and Marcus Grönholm, chasing his fourth consecutive win on home ground, and it changed for a third time early this morning. The Finn moved ahead of Märtin by just 3.7sec over the opening two tests as the 27-year-old Estonian admitted to a slow start. "I must have been sleeping because I was only driving at 100 per cent. Now I'll have to drive at more than 100 per cent to get my lead back. I didn't take enough risks and I needed to concentrate harder to get my rhythm back," he said afterwards.
However, an electrical problem on the way to the next group of three stages left Märtin facing the prospect of more than 58km of competition in a far from healthy car. The crew disconnected as many electrical components as they could but the car's handling became unpredictable on the snake-like forest roads. He lost more than 20 seconds, which seemed like a lifetime when the duelling duo at the head of the leaderboard had not been divided by more than four seconds since the start. Bizarrely, Märtin regained the lead during this section as Grönholm fell victim to the classic Ouninpohja (see News from our Rivals), which year after year proves to be the decisive moment of the rally.
"We had complete electrical failure," he said. "It affected the engine and although the gearchange worked, it was slow. I didn't know how the car was going to respond so I couldn't accelerate or brake properly. We went as fast as we could so as not to lose too much time, but also not to take any risks."
The fault puzzled the Ford BP engineers who believed a sensor was to blame. However, as a precaution the team changed every electrical component and hydraulic valve it could within the time allowed. "The difficulty was that we couldn't identify the problem because it froze all the data. We put in a back-up so that if it failed again, the performance wouldn't suffer to the same extent," explained team director Malcolm Wilson.
The cure worked and Märtin recorded his seventh fastest time of the rally on the next stage. He ended the day with second fastest on the final test, enough to stretch his lead from less than 17 seconds to 1min 13.0 as closest rival Richard Burns hit trouble on the final section. "If we can avoid problems and keep the car on the road I think we'll be OK tomorrow," said Märtin. "I will drive at 100 per cent or just under. It was a great battle with Marcus and I'm sad he retired because we were both having such fun."
"It has been one of the most stressful days I've had in this job," said Wilson. "This rally means so much to me and we've never led here before. It was the first time one of our cars has come into service with a problem that we didn't know how to rectify. All credit to the team, they did a great job. Markko and Michael had a day full of difficult circumstances and I'm relieved we've all come through it OK."
Ford BP team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot lie 11th in a similar Focus RS and in a manufacturer points-scoring position. The Belgians, with little experience of today's stages, have endured intermittent brake problems throughout the day as well as being hampered by running first through the stages on loose, slippery gravel before a cleaner and faster driving line emerged.
"For a young driver like me, it's difficult to learn on roads when you don't have a clean line to follow," said 22-year-old Duval. "It's hard to discover exactly where you should be on the road for the blind crests and jumps. It's not nice but good experience for me nevertheless. Our brake problems were frustrating. The only way we could turn into corners was by using the handbrake and we had two near misses as a result. Tomorrow we'll try to go quicker but my aim is to ensure we finish."
Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen re-started in 11th and were intent on breaking into the top 10 leaderboard but their hopes ended on the day's opening stage. The throttle on their 2002-specification Focus RS became stuck open and the young Finn's only means of slowing was constant use of the brakes and to switch off the engine. Both the engine and brakes overheated and as they stopped at the end of the test, a fire broke out under the bonnet which burned a turbo pipe in the engine. The drivers made roadside repairs and continued to the start of the next stage but with oil covering the turbo area, the team advised the Finns not to start the test for fear of another fire.
News from our Rivals
Behind Märtin there is a furious battle for second. Richard Burns (Peugeot), Carlos Sainz (Citroen) and Petter Solberg (Subaru) are covered by just 0.5sec after a wheel bearing failure on the final test cost the Briton a minute and ended his battle with the Ford BP driver. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) retired from his fight with Märtin when first his car's front suspension broke on Ouninpohja and then the front right wheel came off just before the finish. He completed the stage but retirement was instant. Colin McRae (Citroen) dropped from a potential third to fifth after clocking in to the start of Ouninpohja one minute early and receiving a 60 second penalty. That became academic when he rolled out in Moksi-Leustu, the longest stage of the rally. Other major retirements were Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot), who crashed on the first run through Ouninpohja, and Toni Gardemeister (Skoda), whose engine stalled on the startline of Urria and refused to fire up again.
The third leg is based to the west of Jyväskylä and is the shortest of the event at just 100.90km. After leaving the rally base at 08.00, drivers tackle six stages, two of which will be driven twice. They return to Jyväskylä before returning for the finish at 15.28 after a total of 23 special stages and 409.18km.