Gronholm leads in New Zealand as Ford dominates opening leg BP-Ford World Rally Team dominated today's opening leg of Rally New Zealand as Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen powered into first...
Gronholm leads in New Zealand as Ford dominates opening leg
BP-Ford World Rally Team dominated today's opening leg of Rally New Zealand as Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen powered into first and second respectively. Gronholm completed a clean sweep by winning all five speed tests in his Focus RS World Rally Car to lead the similar vehicle of Hirvonen, who was second fastest on four special stages, by 31.2sec.
Today's action was located south-west of Hamilton, 130km south of Auckland and the new base for 2006. It comprised two identical loops of two gravel tests which gently twisted through the lush, green countryside followed by a short stage surrounding the service park outside the city -- a total of 131.66km of competition. The leg included the Te Koraha test, at 43.88km the longest of the championship season.
The roads have not been used since 1998 and were new to virtually everyone. But they contained the same smooth and flowing characteristics which have earned North Island its reputation for hosting some of the best stages in the championship and ones drivers love to attack.
Overnight rain compacted the loose surface gravel and benefited the two BP-Ford drivers who were the first two starters. Although muddy this morning, the roads gave better grip than loose gravel would have offered. Despite overcast conditions all day, there was no more rain and the roads dried for the afternoon tests. BFGoodrich's tyres were perfectly matched to the conditions, the BP-Ford duo choosing soft compound rubber this morning and a harder version this afternoon.
Gronholm opened a 17.7sec advantage over Hirvonen during the first two stages, despite clipping a fence post on the opening stage and puncturing a tyre. However, BFGoodrich's mousse system worked perfectly to keep the tyre inflated and the 38-year-old Finn dropped no time. He extended his advantage over the afternoon tests as the Focus RS WRC duo pulled clear of their rivals.
"I've been driving steadily rather than at maximum pace so to be leading is a good position," said 38-year-old Gronholm. "The biggest pressure has come from Mikko. He has good confidence and is driving well. I would really like to win this rally so I will try hard to stay ahead of him. It was muddy this morning but drier with good grip this afternoon. Last night's rain helped me with my road position. I hit a few stones but nothing to worry about. The first three stages tomorrow are new but I know the afternoon stages well so I will push hard through those tests."
Hirvonen admitted the stages were difficult but nevertheless he enjoyed driving them. "They are heavily cambered and this morning I was braking the wrong side of the camber which made the car slide into the corners. I made a new differential map last week on the Rally GB test which worked well in the UK. However, the stages are different here and it didn't work so well for me so I made changes at the lunchtime service.
"Dani Sordo is pushing hard but he is 45sec behind so tomorrow I hope I can ease off a little and concentrate on gaining good manufacturer points. The 43km stage is the longest in the championship and required huge concentration and it felt like it was never going to end. Tomorrow morning's stages are new for us all so I need to concentrate hard and trust my pace notes," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said today was better than expected. "Both drivers knew what they had to do in terms of earning manufacturer points. They weren't pushing flat out so to be in this position represents an excellent day's work," he said.
News from our Rivals
Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) was the closest challenger to the BP-Ford duo, the Austrian holding third throughout the day. However, he spun and hit a bank on the fourth stage, causing overheating problems, and Dani Sordo (Citroen) slipped by into third on the final stage. Petter Solberg (Subaru) struggled with a lack of traction, especially this morning. The Norwegian held fifth initially but Xevi Pons (Citroen) moved ahead this afternoon, the Spaniard recovering from handling problems and two spins on the first stage. Henning Solberg (Peugeot) was seventh, despite water leaking from the engine onto his feet this morning. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) also struggled for traction and lost more time with a first stage spin. The Australian is ninth. The only major retirement was Matthew Wilson (Ford), who stopped near the finish of stage three after an impact with a rock caused water loss from the engine and overheating.
The second leg journeys north-west of Hamilton for two different loops of three speed tests on more classic roads. The afternoon loop includes two tests of more than 31km each and is likely to be one of the key sections of the rally. The day ends with a second and final pass over the short Mystery Creek test surrounding the service park. Drivers leave Hamilton at 07.00 and return at 19.13 after 131.34km of competition.