Duval shines amid the gloomy weather on Rally GB BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park and team-mates FranÃ§ois Duval and StÃ©phane PrÃ©vot strengthened their positions on the leaderboard during another difficult day...
Duval shines amid the gloomy weather on Rally GB
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot strengthened their positions on the leaderboard during another difficult day on the Wales Rally GB. Märtin and Park climbed to third in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car while Duval and Prévot belied their inexperience of the rally to match the pace of the leaders in moving up to fifth.
Duval excelled on roads that he did not know well, winning three speed tests in his Focus RS and finishing second on two more. Martin's climb into a podium position came despite losing a minute early this afternoon when the engine of his Castrol-branded Focus RS lost power.
This second leg of the 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship tested drivers to the full. Conditions this morning were even worse then yesterday and competitors faced standing water, mud and fog during the morning loop of three gravel special stages near the Epynt military ranges. The roads were drier, but just as slippery, during the second pass before the dark clouds were replaced by blue skies for the late afternoon tests. Drivers completed eight stages covering 120.72km in total.
The unexpectedly wet weather meant drivers faced a dilemma over tyre choice. The conditions required soft compound rubber but regulations restrict the number of tyres available and many drivers found they were running out of the soft version. They had the option of choosing unsuitable hard compound rubber, to leave the remaining softer tyres for later, or deciding whether to use a set of tyres for a second group of stages.
Märtin climbed to third from an overnight fourth on the second test of the morning when Marcus Grönholm retired. He found himself quite isolated there. "I was in no man's land," said the 28-year-old Estonian driver. "We had large gaps in front and behind us, but we had been over the limit a few times so we needed to settle a little. The fog was a problem, but it always seems to be in Britain. It was patchy, and came and went quickly. Sometimes it was a hindrance or you could be lucky and miss it altogether. The conditions were the worst I have seen in this country - and they told me it would be sunny in Wales in September!"
However, on the second pass through the three tests, an engine problem cost Märtin a minute and he almost slipped back into the clutches of Carlos Sainz. "It began about 2km after the start of Crychan, the first of the three stages," said Märtin. "We were down on power all the way after that. It was consistent, and didn't get any worse, but everything felt really slow, especially the uphill sections. I tried to fix it between stages but couldn't."
He reached the safety of the Swansea service park where engineers diagnosed a failed boost valve and the team restored the Focus RS to full health. He ended the leg 17.9sec ahead of Sainz. "We nearly lost third this afternoon but we've kept Carlos behind us and we must make sure we do the same tomorrow," added Märtin.
Duval has only finished this rally once, and his knowledge of the tricky Welsh forest tracks is not high. However, he shrugged that to one side to excel in the slippery conditions. He was fastest over both runs of the 13.33km Epynt stage, a brand new test for this year, and was second quickest on two more stages to climb from an overnight seventh into fifth. He ended the leg by setting fastest time around the super special stage in the dockland area of Cardiff.
"The stages were nicer today, I especially enjoyed the new stage, and I felt quite happy driving in the wet," said Duval. "Having said that, it was better this afternoon when the roads dried out. The launch control system didn't work properly on the first stage this morning so we lost a few seconds by using the manual version. That was our only problem. I drove at about 90 per cent because I didn't need to go any faster, but that seemed quick enough to be on the same pace as the leaders. It was a better day than I expected.
"The grip was better than yesterday and the car again felt perfect. The stages were aggressive and that suited the set-up of my car. I've not had to make too many changes to my pace notes and I felt comfortable with them. The gaps in front and behind are too big for me to fight tomorrow, but maybe I will push a little harder," added Duval.
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The fight for supremacy between overnight leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) and Petter Solberg (Subaru) was tense and thrilling. The Frenchman was the quicker on each of the first three tests in the opening loop to extend his lead to 17.2sec. Solberg was faster on four of the final five stages to reduce the deficit tonight to just 7.3sec. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) was the third driver in the victory fight but a gearbox problem hampered his concentration and he hit a stone on the second stage, ripping a wheel off his car and retiring. Carlos Sainz (Citroen) had a consistent day in fourth, concerned only by having to use hard compound tyres in the wet. Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) lost a minute after going off the road on stage 9. Mud blocked his car's radiator and the engine switched to a less powerful 'safe' mode for the following test to keep the temperature down. His troubles allowed Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) to move ahead on the penultimate stage. Toni Gardemeister (Skoda) lost almost 30 minutes after going off the road in Margam while team-mate Jani Paasonen retired after stage 11 with a broken clutch.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally but the speed tests are all classics. After leaving Swansea at 06.30, drivers face two passes through the 30.00km Rhondda test, high in the Vale of Neath. A repeat of today's tricky 27.55km Margam precedes a third and final pass over the super special stage in Cardiff, where the event finishes at 15.35. The final day contains 90.00km of competition to take the rally total to 394.03km. And the good news is that the forecast is for a dry day!