Sunday showdown summons Gronholm in Rally NZ thriller BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen face a thrilling final leg showdown tomorrow with arch rival Sebastien Loeb as the victory battle on Rally New Zealand ...
Sunday showdown summons Gronholm in Rally NZ thriller
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen face a thrilling final leg showdown tomorrow with arch rival Sebastien Loeb as the victory battle on Rally New Zealand reached a remarkable intensity today. The Finns start the last day of this 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship just 1.7sec behind the Frenchman in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after two days and almost 260km of gripping competition over spectacular North Island roads.
With the two protagonists also duelling for points at the head of the drivers' championship, the stunning Tasman Sea coastline south of Raglan will be the setting for a dramatic finale to one of the closest encounters witnessed in the WRC for some time.
BP-Ford team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen continue to hold third in another Focus RS. The Finns are 1min 12.5sec behind Loeb, having adopted a no-risk policy today but maintaining a strong pace to keep them in the ideal position should either of the frontrunners strike trouble.
In contrast to yesterday's mud, today's six gravel speed tests were dry and dust clouds kicking up from the rear of the cars provided spectacular images as competitors weaved through the lush green countryside. Drivers tackled three special stages this morning near Port Waikato, north-west of the rally base in Hamilton, before a second pass over a short test at the event's service park. Two longer tests over wider roads near Te Akau formed the afternoon itinerary, a total of 130.10km.
Tyre choice this morning was tricky with some roads reported to be dry and others still damp. Gronholm, leading overnight by 13.0sec, opted for BFGoodrich's medium soft compound with small cuts carved into the rubber. After Gronholm and Loeb shared a win each on the opening two tests, the 39-year-old Finn's 14.9sec advantage was cut to just 4.0sec as the dry roads of the 31.58km Franklin proved unsuited to his tyres. The battle raged again throughout the afternoon with Loeb edging ahead in the final few kilometres.
"This morning I took tyres that were too soft and they didn't work on the long stage," he explained. "The car was like a snake and was sliding a lot. I lost my rhythm and lost time to Loeb, who had a harder tyre. Tyre choice was crucial but it's hard to make the right decision standing here when the stages are two hours and 100km away. Then halfway through the last stage I hit a hole and thought I had punctured. I eased off because the car felt nervous and suddenly three or four seconds went.
"It wasn't such a perfect drive from me today. I didn't have that usual 'super' feeling with the car or my driving. I've not been on the limit and hopefully I'll find that tomorrow. The gap is small and I hope I can turn it around. I would like to win this with the championship in mind, but if I don't, then I don't. Second wouldn't be a disaster, but it would make the championship very tight. Tonight we've made a few small changes to the differential programme and suspension for tomorrow. It will be a great battle!" he added.
Hirvonen encountered similar tyre difficulties to Gronholm this morning. However, with no pressure from behind he was able to consolidate his overnight third on the opening group of tests. A similarly strong pace this afternoon ensured he returned to Hamilton tonight with a comfortable 49.8sec lead over fourth-placed Jari-Matti Latvala.
"I've not pushed too hard but I wanted to stay close and produce some good times so that if anything happens to one of the guys ahead, I can be there," said Hirvonen. "It was a consistent day with no big attack. But it was a shame I wasn't fighting with someone because when there's no battle you tend to ease off a little.
"The roads were drier than we thought this morning and in general my tyres were too soft. This afternoon they were harder and it was a good choice. The afternoon stages were wider and faster, a bit more like the roads in Finland and I really enjoyed driving on those," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson admitted he was enthralled by the fight at the front. "It has been incredible to see two drivers battling at this pace. Sometimes it's easier to challenge from behind. There is a lot at stake tomorrow and Marcus has only one strategy. He wants to win so has to keep pushing and put the pressure on Loeb," he said.
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Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) won four of the six stages to claim the lead for the first time on the event on the final stage. Behind the BP-Ford duo, Chris Atkinson (Subaru) and Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) enjoyed a tense fight for fourth. Latvala overhauled Atkinson on the first stage but it was only on the faster, wider roads this afternoon that the Finn could stretch his advantage to 10.5sec. Dani Sordo (Citroen) rounded off the top six. Eighth-placed Henning Solberg (Ford) hit a bank in stage eight and had to stop twice later in the stage to clean mud from the radiator, dropping more than three minutes and two places. The only major retirement was Xevi Pons (Subaru), who crashed out for the second day after rolling on stage eight.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally and includes some of the most spectacular stages of the event. Based around the west coast town of Raglan, the itinerary comprises two identical loops of three stages, including the famous Whaanga Coast which hugs the Tasman Sea coastline. The event ends with a third and final pass over the short Mystery Creek stage. After leaving Hamilton at 07.40, drivers tackle 95.94km of competition before the finish at 15.15.