Status quo in Portugal as BP-Ford preserves podium positions Both BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers retained top three positions after today's longest and most difficult leg of Rally de Portugal. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen lie second in...
Status quo in Portugal as BP-Ford preserves podium positions
Both BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers retained top three positions after today's longest and most difficult leg of Rally de Portugal. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen lie second in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, while fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen maintained third in a similar car during the tricky gravel speed tests in the hills above the Algarve coastline.
The second leg was the longest of this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Drivers tackled two identical loops of special stages covering 152.92km north-west of the rally base on the edge of Faro. All were technically demanding and some drivers rated the opening 30.69km test as one of the most difficult they have seen, with the nature of the roads changing frequently and upsetting their rhythm.
In contrast to yesterday, the second leg brought wet and gloomy conditions this morning. The weather posed tricky tyre selection questions as the cold and slippery roads begged soft compound rubber, but the abrasive surface and forecast of brighter and drier conditions suggested harder tyres might be the right option.
Gronholm gambled on the roads drying and opted for BFGoodrich's medium compound rubber with extra cuts carved in. The opening stage was slippery but the tracks started to dry quickly and the 39-year-old Finn was second fastest on all three stages as the gap between him and leader Sebastien Loeb widened from 3.1sec to 15.0sec.
"We had different tyres to Loeb, but I still don't know what the right choice was," said Gronholm. "I wasn't 100 per cent sure softer tyres would last more than 70km of stages on these roads. It was raining in service this morning but we knew from the recce that the roads were abrasive so I thought there was no alternative but to take a medium compound. Loeb had softer tyres for the wet conditions but I don't have a clear answer as to why he was quicker."
The overcast skies gave way to bright sunshine this afternoon with a strong breeze. Gronholm opted for medium compound rubber but the choice proved too soft and the margin between the top two widened to 40.5sec. "Things didn't go so well this afternoon," he explained. "The tyres were too soft and were moving about too much but I'm not sure that even with the right tyres I would have caught Loeb. It's disappointing but I think the gap is too big now unless Seb has problems."
In contrast to Gronholm, team-mate Hirvonen opted for softer tyres this morning with small cuts in the rubber. He increased his advantage over fourth-placed Petter Solberg to 13.3sec. "Conditions were slippery but consistent, so it wasn't so bad," he said. "I was cautious on the first stage but pushed harder on the next two. My tyre choice was fine but from the times it looks like it would not have mattered what tyre we chose. Grip was consistent so there were no surprises, but I was a little worried about the slippery sections and was over-cautious in places."
He also opted for medium compound tyres this afternoon and fought for every tenth of a second with Solberg, ending 13.0sec apart. "It was totally dry this afternoon and it was hard for the tyres," said 26-year-old Hirvonen. "My choice was OK, even though they are destroyed now. My performance was better than this morning but I don't understand how Marcus and Loeb can set those kind of times.
"I'm not completely happy and I want to improve but it's good to be in a podium position tonight. Tomorrow I need to fight hard to keep Petter behind me. It will be a good battle and I'm not going to let him pass easily," he said.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said it was a strong position for the team with both cars lying in the top three. "After the first three stages I felt Marcus still had a chance of catching Seb, even though we had lost ground. But as the afternoon group of stages continued, it became clear that he couldn't regain the time. Mikko has done well to keep in front of Petter Solberg and that will be his task tomorrow," he said.
News from our Rivals
Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) dominated by winning all six stages, extending his overnight lead from 3.1sec to 40.5sec. Behind the Ford duo, Petter Solberg (Subaru) maintained fourth despite spinning into a field on the first stage and suffering traction troubles this afternoon. Dani Sordo (Citroen) held fifth despite a bizarre incident on the opening stage this afternoon when the Spaniard tackled much of the stage with both doors flapping open after the locking mechanism broke. Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) is sixth, despite losing time in the opening stage when he went off the road and hit a tree. Henning Solberg (Ford) climbed to seventh, the Norwegian steadily regaining confidence on gravel after his crash on the last round in Mexico. Manfred Stohl (Citroen) dropped almost five minutes this morning after going off the road and damaging his car's radiator while Chris Atkinson (Subaru) retired after crashing out on the same test.
The final leg is the shortest of the rally, but still contains 81.39km of competition. After leaving Faro at 07.00, drivers tackle two identical loops of two stages to the north before a second pass over the spectacular asphalt super special stage at the Estadio Algarve soccer arena on the edge of the town. The finish ceremony takes place at the stadium at 14.10.