MÃ¤rtin leads Swedish Rally for Ford as winter melts away Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park led the Swedish Rally by almost half a minute after the opening leg of the three-day event. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally...
Märtin leads Swedish Rally for Ford as winter melts away
Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park led the Swedish Rally by almost half a minute after the opening leg of the three-day event. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car was twice fastest on today's key speed test to return to the rally base in Karlstad with a 23.3sec advantage over Sebastien Loeb on this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Ford has three Focus cars in the points with Janne Tuohino and Jukka Aho fifth and François Duval and Stéphane Prévot eighth.
As the only true winter rally in the 16-round championship, the pine forests of central Sweden are usually covered in heavy snow and a thick layer of ice. However, pre-event temperatures as high as 7°C have seen much of the Scandinavian winter disappear. As a result parts of today's five speed tests, covering 145.80km, were muddy gravel even before the action began, and in other areas the studded tyres cut through the fragile ice to expose the loose surface beneath.
However, the roads in the daunting 52.57km Granberget special stage, the most northerly of the rally and the third longest in the entire championship, were icy for both the morning and afternoon tests. It was here that Märtin and Park built their lead, their Castrol-backed Focus RS unrivalled to win the stage on both occasions. Lying third overall after the opening two stages, they were fastest by 9.0sec on the first run to take the lead, recording an incredible average speed of more than 127kph. They were then quickest by 3.1sec this afternoon to stretch their advantage.
"I took care early this morning and just needed a couple of stages to settle into the rally," said the 28-year-old Estonian driver. "The Focus has been reliable all day. The only problem was a driver one when I stalled the engine at the start of the second stage but we didn't lose much time. The two Granberget stages were really good fun, in fact the whole day has been enjoyable. This morning we were the second car through the stage and there were no lines or ruts from other cars so I was able to play with the car a little and choose exactly the line that I wanted. To be first with a lead of more than 20sec is better than I expected."
Heavy rain during the final service tonight threatens to wash away even more of the snow and ice on tomorrow's stages, which are slightly further south than today. "Tomorrow could be very difficult if the weather doesn't change tonight. It won't be much fun if it is like this," added Märtin.
Finnish duo Tuohino and Aho, driving an M-Sport run Focus RS but nominated to score points for Ford, took no risks on their debut rally in the latest specification car but still posted a top six time on every stage. "We made no mistakes although maybe we were too sideways in places on the second stage this morning," said Tuohino. "I drove at maximum speed but didn't take any risks. I call it safety speed and everything has gone normally. It's not a bad position to be the leading Finn on a winter rally. I will try to go a little faster tomorrow and brake a little less but I must be careful because the Focus has more potential than I know about."
Duval and Prévot are competing in Sweden for the first time together but the Belgians gained in confidence and experience as the day progressed. "It was good fun to drive on these roads and the conditions were better than we expected," said 23-year-old Duval. "The roads were about 70% gravel on the first two stages but the lack of ice and snow hasn't altered the way I drive.
"We worked hard on perfecting our pace notes on the first pass through Granberget and that showed because they were fantastic on the second run. We were much quicker than our first attempt when all the other leading drivers were slower. I had a good feeling with the Focus but like everyone else I am concerned about what the rain will do to the roads we use tomorrow."
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson said all three Focus RS cars had been given a routine maintenance only at the final service park in Hagfors tonight. "Our cars are where I expected them to be had the conditions been consistent. But the roads have been so variable and unpredictable that I'm even more delighted with the way the day has gone. Markko drove superbly on both occasions in the long stage, Janne has driven sensibly to end the day inside the top six and François showed how much he has learned about his pace notes when you compare his times through the long stage," he said.
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Monte Carlo Rally winner Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) won the final stage to hold off Petter Solberg (Subaru) for second, the Norwegian losing time on the second stage with a spin. Carlos Sainz (Citroen) was Loeb's main challenger until he opted for tyres with long studs rather than the better-suited shorter version for the second pass through Granberget and dropped to fourth. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot), winner in Sweden three times in the last four years, led after the opening two tests but power steering failure 20kms after the start of the first 52.57km Granberget cost a minute and he ended the day in sixth, 3.3sec behind Tuohino. It was a troubled day for Gilles Panizzi and Kristian Sohlberg (both Mitsubishi). Sohlberg spun twice on the first stage and went off into a snowbank on the second, losing four minutes in total. He spun again on the penultimate test and dropped a further minute, ending the day in 35th. Gearbox troubles for Panizzi forced the team to fit a replacement after the second stage but that also broke and the original was put back in after the next test. However, he stopped with more transmission problems 2km from the end of the penultimate stage and was the only major retirement.
The second leg is the longest of the three days of competition. After leaving Karlstad at 05.30, drivers head north to Hagfors again, around which eight stages, covering 152.40km, are located. Two tests are tackled twice and the final stage will be a repeat of the short sprint around the rallycross circuit at Hagfors which closed today's action. Drivers return to Karlstad for the final overnight halt at 19.36.