BP-Ford duo slip and slide through opening leg in Wales Treacherously slippery conditions made today's opening leg of the Wales Rally GB exceptionally demanding, but both BP-Ford World Rally Team pairings survived unscathed in their Focus RS...
BP-Ford duo slip and slide through opening leg in Wales
Treacherously slippery conditions made today's opening leg of the Wales Rally GB exceptionally demanding, but both BP-Ford World Rally Team pairings survived unscathed in their Focus RS World Rally Cars. Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen ended the day in ninth, less than six seconds away from a top six placing, with team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek in 12th.
However, the leading Focus RS was in the hands of privately-entered Norwegians Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud. They drove superbly to hold seventh, outpacing six manufacturer-entered cars on their final FIA World Rally Championship event of the season.
Yesterday's torrential rain gave way to bright sunshine as the 80 starters left Swansea this morning for the opening competitive action on this 12th round of the series, following last night's ceremonial start at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. A combination of the sunshine and a stiff breeze helped dry the gravel forest roads in south Wales to an extent. But there was still plenty of slippery, slimy mud covering the hard base on this morning's opening loop of three speed tests.
The tracks dried remarkably quickly as the day progressed, and wet mud caking the sides of the cars during the morning was replaced by a thin layer of dust as competitors repeated the same tests this afternoon. The six stages comprised 136.74km. Tyre choice was difficult in the rapidly changing conditions and on an inconsistent surface, with little margin for error. Both Gardemeister and Kresta opted for Michelin's softest compound rubber all day, with small cuts carved into the tyres to combat the mud.
Gardemeister completed the opening loop of three special stages in seventh, in the midst of a huge gaggle of 12 cars covered by just 32 seconds. "It was so slippery and muddy that it felt as if I had no connection with the road," said the 30-year-old Finn. "I couldn't feel what was going on underneath the car and it wasn't the best of mornings. I nearly went off the road several times in the mud and I had so many near misses on the first stage that I was starting to get scared!"
A softer suspension set-up improved Gardemeister's feeling during the afternoon but he was still unable to produce the speed he desired in his Castrol-branded Focus RS. "I expected more from today. I don't understand why the times haven't been there because I've been driving flat out and I'm upset not to be in the top six. It's the first rally this year where I've pushed hard and got nothing out of it. Maybe the car was too soft this afternoon because I didn't expect it to dry as much as it did. If it stays dry tomorrow, I will need a harder set-up," he added.
Kresta ended the opening loop in 11th in his Focus RS, maintaining a similar pace throughout the afternoon. The 29-year-old Czech could scarcely believe how slippery the first two stages were. "It was like driving on ice this morning," he said. "My tyres were too hard and many times I slid off the driving line in the mud.
"Everything was faster and nicer this afternoon. Although my position isn't great the gaps are close and I'm only just over 30 seconds from the top six, so much can happen tomorrow. I made some changes to the differential set-up after the shakedown test yesterday and the Focus has felt really good all day. I won't change anything tonight. Tomorrow I don't want to take any risks so I'll keep the same pace," he added.
Solberg set three top five times during the day, despite admitting he felt rusty having not driven his Focus RS for six weeks. "It's been difficult trying to drive flat out because I've had to get used to being back in the car again. My target this morning was to be the best Ford, and I've achieved that. I've not been at 100 per cent speed. Both me and the car can go quicker, and I hope to do that tomorrow," he said.
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Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) was the early leader. But when the Finn hit serious brake problems on the second test Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) moved to the front, despite losing 10 seconds by spinning and stalling. The Frenchman won two stages to build an overnight lead of 9.9sec, despite a 10 second penalty for checking in late at a time control. Petter Solberg (Subaru) spun in the same stage as Loeb but made no other mistakes to hold second ahead of Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi), who was fastest on the second stage. Gronholm recovered superbly to climb from 19th to fourth, edging out Francois Duval (Citroen). Duval's only problem came at the start of stage two when he dropped 10 seconds as his launch control system failed to engage. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) had a fantastic Rally GB debut, holding sixth despite a final stage puncture.
Armin Schwarz (Skoda) had a torrid morning, a combination of a spin, a broken intercom and tyre troubles costing over two minutes. He is 21st while returning team-mate Colin McRae is 13th. There were no major retirements today.
The highlight of the leg will be a showpiece speed test to close the day at Cardiff's 50,000 capacity Millennium Stadium. The sliding roof over the arena will be closed to make this the first indoor stage in WRC history. The leg is again based around the Swansea service park although all the gravel forest stages are located 60km to the north, close to the Epynt military ranges. After leaving Swansea at 09.00, drivers face two identical loops of three speed tests before heading to Cardiff for the stadium stage and returning to Swansea at 21.04. They tackle 103.86km of competition.