Podium finish for MÃ¤rtin in Italy as rain brings dramatic end Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park finished third on Italy's Rallye Sanremo today after a dramatic final few kilometres in the mountains of the southern...
Podium finish for Märtin in Italy as rain brings dramatic end
Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park finished third on Italy's Rallye Sanremo today after a dramatic final few kilometres in the mountains of the southern Alps turned the leaderboard on its head. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car was fastest on seven of the 14 asphalt speed tests during the three-day rally and looked firmly on course for second position until a sudden downpour transformed the final positions.
Team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot ensured this 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship turned out to be a good one for the Ford BP squad by finishing fifth in their similar Focus RS, providing a double points haul for the team.
Gale force winds lashed the coastline along the Italian Riviera last night but sunshine greeted competitors as they tackled the first of two loops of two speed tests, totalling 96.12km, which comprised the final leg. Märtin claimed his seventh stage victory on the second test in his Castrol-backed Focus RS and looked comfortable in second position with his Belgian team-mates equally assured of sixth with just 48km remaining.
However, having already left the Imperia service park for the final loop with dry weather Michelin tyres fitted to both Focus RS cars, the weather high in the mountains turned nasty. Rain, and even hail, lashed the twisty asphalt roads and, with 300bhp World Rally Cars on unsuitable rubber, it became a question of survival rather than speed for all the leading drivers - with the exception of Gilles Panizzi.
The Frenchman, who has a home in the mountains nearby, knows the vagaries of the weather better than most. He predicted rain and selected wet weather tyres for the final two stages. His gamble paid off and he sped through the standing water to climb from fifth to second, as Märtin, Duval and all the other front-runners fought simply to stay on the road.
"The first 8km of the penultimate stage were dry but the last stage was just torrential rain from start to finish," said Märtin. "We had dry weather tyres on the car and I just don't know how I stayed on the road. In those conditions there was no chance of any grip at all and we came very, very close to crashing at one point. We were so lucky to escape. It was like going down a ski run with no skis.
"Generally, it has been a good rally for us. We were fastest on seven special stages and that kind of performance gives us plenty of confidence for the asphalt rallies in Corsica and Spain later this month. I was disappointed to lose the chance to fight for victory yesterday and it's a shame to lose second place on the final stage but we were so lucky not to end the rally off the road so I can't complain too much," added the 27-year-old Estonian driver, who climbs to fifth in the championship.
Duval was overjoyed with fifth place after disappointing results in recent events. "I predicted a top six result for myself before the start of the rally and I'm delighted to have achieved that," said the 22-year-old Belgian. "The next two rallies in Corsica and Spain are both asphalt so I'm very much looking forward to the rest of this month. Conditions in the last two stages were awful. We managed 3km of the penultimate stage before it started to rain. After that, it was incredibly slippery. We cut a corner about 5km after the start of the last stage and damaged the steering slightly. It felt wobbly and with the rain pouring down, we decided to take no risks and make sure we finished."
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson was happy with the performance of both the Focus RS and the drivers. "We set more fastest times than any other team and that's an indication of the strong performance of the car. Both drivers drove well. I'm particularly happy with François. He drove a more professional rally this weekend and he will go into the next two events with confidence that he was lacking prior to coming here. I'm obviously disappointed that Markko had second and two points taken away from him on the final stage but the world championship is wide open again and set for an exciting finish," he said.
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Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was heading for an untroubled victory until the weather changed. However, the Frenchman kept cool under immense pressure and held off the charging Gilles Panizzi (Peugeot) to win by 28.3sec. It was his third victory of the season and lifted him to second in the drivers' championship. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) was on course to follow Märtin to the finish but the Finn crashed out near the start of the final stage allowing Carlos Sainz (Citroen) to take fourth. Behind Duval, Colin McRae (Citroen) took sixth while Richard Burns (Peugeot) took advantage of all the drama to climb from 10th to seventh over the final two tests, gaining two vital points to preserve his championship lead despite struggling for confidence throughout the event. Didier Auriol (Skoda) finished 12th to claim the final manufacturers' point for the Czech team.
The second stop in October's mini-tour of the Mediterranean is Corsica. Ajaccio hosts the Tour de Corse, another demanding all-asphalt event in the mountains, on 16 - 19 October.