Gronholm takes charge for Ford in muddy Japanese forests BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen lead Rally Japan after controling today's opening leg. The Finns powered their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to the ...
Gronholm takes charge for Ford in muddy Japanese forests
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen lead Rally Japan after controling today's opening leg. The Finns powered their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to the front from the opening kilometre this morning and were never headed as they won six of the gravel speed tests, building a 10.5sec advantage. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen hold a comfortable third in a similar Focus RS after setting a consistently quick pace.
This 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship is based on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido and tens of thousands of fans brought the centre of Obihiro to a standstill last night to witness the start ceremony. When the competition began this morning, the rain of the last few days had subsided to leave clearer conditions but the narrow gravel special stages almost 100km north-east were extremely muddy and tricky.
Gronholm was fastest on three of the four morning stages to build a 9.3sec lead over Loeb. The BP-Ford team increased the ride height on his Focus RS at the lunchtime service to increase the clearance in the ruts when the same roads were repeated this afternoon. Gronholm was quickest on the same three tests and second through both passes of the 1.30km super special stage next to the service park on the edge of Obihiro.
"After our win in Finland on the last rally, I felt confident here before the start," said 38-year-old Gronholm. "It has been a good battle with Loeb today but I must admit I was hoping my lead would be bigger tonight. It's obviously going to be a hard fight and I need to stretch my advantage tomorrow because the gap at the moment isn't big enough. One small mistake could be costly.
"We made a good tyre choice. The roads were extremely muddy and slippery this morning and the conditions became worse with the passage of every car. I've not tested in that weather but everything was OK and it was drier this afternoon. Loeb beat me twice on the same stage and I remember losing time there last year. Maybe I need to have a closer look at my pace notes next year," he added.
Hirvonen was second fastest on three stages in his similar BP Ultimate and Castrol-branded Focus RS, and third quickest on five more to end the day 62.1sec behind Gronholm and 1min 18.6sec ahead of fourth-placed Manfred Stohl. The 26-year-old Finn's only trouble came on the morning's final stage.
"About 3km after the start I hit a concrete post on a bridge on a fifth gear right bend," he explained. The impact bent a rear wheel and I lost my confidence. I dropped a few seconds over the remaining kilometres, especially in the slow corners, and if I back off even a tiny bit then Marcus and Seb move ahead.
"I had good grip all morning in the mud but sometimes the odd corner was like ice and then the car just slid wide. It was better this afternoon but the roads cut up badly and it was like driving on a railway track in places because the ruts were so deep. I can't catch Marcus and Seb and I need to be a bit braver to match their pace. It is the same situation as it was in Finland a fortnight ago and I'm just going to follow it and drive so as not to make mistakes," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a successful and troublefree day. "I expected Marcus to be fighting with Loeb. Both Marcus and Mikko have driven well and made no major mistakes. I would rather Marcus' lead was bigger but he will start behind Loeb on the road tomorrow so that we can monitor Seb's stage times," he said."
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Apart from Gronholm, Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was the only other driver to claim fastest times. The Frenchman won four stages. Behind Hirvonen, Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) holds fourth, the Austrian acclimatising quickly on his first visit to Japan. Dani Sordo (Citroen) is also making his debut here. He erred on the side of caution but dropped 20sec after stalling in stage four before edging ahead of Chris Atkinson (Subaru) on the penultimate stage. Atkinson incurred a 50sec penalty when the team had problems fitting a suspension component in the midday service. Petter Solberg (Subaru) held an early third but dropped two minutes in stage four due to brake pad problems. He is eighth.
The second leg is the longest of the rally, covering 128.02km. After leaving Obihiro at 06.00, competitors return to the same area as today, although the route also includes tests further south near the town of Ashoro. After nine more stages, the day ends with two more passes over the Obihiro super special stage before reaching the final overnight halt at 19.53.