Stunning recovery from Gardemeister earns fifth in Italy Two Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars held top five positions after a dramatic first day of the Rally Italia Sardinia. BP-Ford World Rally Team's Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen staged...
Stunning recovery from Gardemeister earns fifth in Italy
Two Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars held top five positions after a dramatic first day of the Rally Italia Sardinia. BP-Ford World Rally Team's Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen staged a tremendous fightback up the leaderboard after delays this morning to end the leg in fifth. But the surprise of the rally was the performance of private entrants Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who took full advantage of improved road conditions further down the start order to claim third.
Roman Kresta and Jan Mozny lie 11th in the second BP-Ford Focus RS, while three more privately-entered Focus RS cars lie inside the top 16 after a day of high attrition in the north of the Mediterranean island.
Glorious sunshine ensured the rugged mountains and the clear blue sea provided a fantastic backdrop for this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Afternoon temperatures climbed to 25C and the gravel speed tests were dry and dusty. The narrow tracks were rough and rockier than last year's event, the spring date meaning the roads are still suffering the effects of the winter rain. Drivers faced two identical loops of three speed tests south of the rally base of Olbia, covering 137.86km and split by service back in the town.
The day did not start well for Gardemeister and Honkanen. The Finns hit a rock in the opening 29.92km Terranova test and bent a steering arm on their Castrol-backed Focus RS. As a result they had to tackle both the 20.54km Crastazza and the 18.57km Mamone tests with an ill-handling car before returning to service for repairs. They dropped about 30 seconds and held 15th.
"I hit the rock with the right front wheel less than 1km after the start of the stage," said 30-year-old Gardemeister. "The handling was bad for the rest of the stage. After the finish I checked the damage and the steering arm was bent like a banana. I used a rock to try to straighten it. That worked a little, but not enough. For the next two stages I just had to drive steadily and concentrate on keeping the car on the road. I couldn't attack. It was quite a big impact with the rock but Michelin's ATS mousse system worked well and kept the tyre inflated until the end."
With a new steering arm fitted and armed with Michelin's new construction hard compound gravel tyres, Gardemeister set about making up lost ground on the second loop. Sixth fastest on the second pass through Terranova enabled him to climb to 10th. Third fastest through Crastazza powered him into sixth and third through Mamone was enough to claim fifth.
"The tyres were superb this afternoon," he added. "The grip was great, I had straight steering and I drove with more confidence. I pushed a little too hard in the fourth stage and missed a few junctions so I eased back into a more comfortable pace. There were big ruts and stones on the repeat pass of the stages so I tried to drive around the rocks that looked too big to go over."
Hirvonen and Lehtinen were outstanding in their privately-entered Focus RS. A lower start position meant the roads had been swept clear of gravel, offering a cleaner and faster line. The Finn threw caution to the wind and after three stages he was second, just 7.9sec behind Sebastien Loeb. He maintained a strong pace this afternoon, even though road position was no longer an advantage.
"The car is easy to drive, exactly how I wanted it," said Hirvonen. "I gained an awful lot from my road position this morning. I had a few lucky escapes but I tried to drive neatly through the corners and then flat out everywhere else, even over all the rocks and the rough sections. I will try to keep the same pace tomorrow but I'm sure Toni will trying just as hard to catch me."
Kresta and Mozny made a cautious start in their Focus RS. The Czechs are competing here for the first time and were content to start carefully while they learned the characteristics of roads which were new to them and which have a reputation for high attrition. They stepped up their pace during the afternoon and moved to within 3.5sec of a place on the top 10 leaderboard.
"It was a difficult morning and I had to concentrate hard," said Kresta. "It was rough with many ruts and all I could do was stay in the tracks and drive in them. I had one small incident on the second stage when I overshot a junction and used the handbrake to spin the car round. I made the spring settings slightly harder this afternoon and things were much better. But about 2km after the start of stage four I had a problem with the gearchange. The semi-automatic system wasn't working properly so I switched to the back-up manual system. That meant I had no handbrake, and I stalled a few times at tight hairpins when I really needed the handbrake to bring the car around."
Mark Higgins and Trevor Agnew are 12th in their Eddie Stobart Motorsport Focus RS, just 3.7sec behind Kresta. Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr are 14th after two top five times in their privately-entered Focus RS, with Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud two places further back in a similar car, the Norwegian driver struggling to find a good feeling behind the wheel.
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Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) took an early lead but the Finn rolled on the third stage and dropped 1min 45sec. However, he recovered well and is seventh. Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) moved to the front after stiffening his suspension settings following the first stage and ended the day with a 31.7sec lead. He set four fastest times. Francois Duval was on course to give the French team a one-two until he rolled midway through stage five and retired. Petter Solberg (Subaru) slid off briefly on both the opening two stages but climbed back from sixth to second. Front punctures on the second and third stages slowed Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi) but he recovered to fourth behind Hirvonen. Markko Martin (Peugeot) rounded off the top six, despite a poor tyre choice this morning. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) ran as high as third but hit a rock and ripped off the right rear wheel 7km from the finish and retired. A broken rear brake pipe hampered Gigi Galli (Mitsubishi) in the second stage but worse was to come as broken rear suspension sidelined the Italian in the fifth stage.
The second leg is the longest of the rally and is based south-west of Olbia. After re-starting at 08.00, the day begins with the longest two tests of the rally. After service, competitors face a short stage which will be broadcast live on television before a second pass over the morning tests. The five stages cover 144.01km and the drivers return to Olbia at 18.42.