GrÃ¶nholm powers Ford Focus into lead in snowy Sweden BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus GrÃ¶nholm and Timo Rautiainen lead the Swedish Rally after today's demanding opening leg in the frozen countryside of central Sweden. The Finns,...
Grönholm powers Ford Focus into lead in snowy Sweden
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lead the Swedish Rally after today's demanding opening leg in the frozen countryside of central Sweden. The Finns, winners of this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship last season, won three speed tests to lead by 11.1sec in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen recovered from early morning difficulties to lie fifth in a similar Focus RS.
Conditions were perfect for the first of two winter rallies in Scandinavia on consecutive weekends. Snow and freezing temperatures during the last two weeks left the forest roads of the Varmland region with a solid ice base. Overnight snow and bright sunshine provided spectacular scenery for the huge crowds who ventured into the speed tests clustered close to the service park at Hagfors in temperatures that dipped to -7ºC.
Despite the winter weather, this rally is one of the fastest of the season. Tungsten-tipped steel studs protrude from BFGoodrich's skinny tyres on the Focus RS cars to penetrate the snow and bite into the ice beneath to provide unexpected levels of grip and average speeds topped 115kph.
The action began last night with a purpose-built 1.90km test at Karlstad's trotting track where huge crowds gathered to watch two drivers at a time race head-to-head around the sweeping bends. The competition moved 90km north to Hagfors this morning around which drivers faced two loops of stages bringing the leg total to eight tests and 113.81km of competition.
Grönholm, second last night, opted for long 7mm studs in his BFGoodrich tyres this morning to reach the ice beneath the fresh layer of winter. He was hampered by the loose snow on the opening test and was only eighth quickest to slide to fourth. However, the 39-year-old Finn quickly regained second on the next two stages before the lunchtime service halt.
"There was a lot of fresh snow in the stages, more than we thought there would be, and I wasn't so confident with the grip," he said. "After the first stage I thought the studs were not long enough but they were better on the next two tests and I think it was the right choice. Running early through the stages was possibly not the best road position but I don't think it was too big a problem.
Grönholm posted three fastest times in the four afternoon stages to move into the lead and pull clear of Sébastien Loeb. "I had a good afternoon, apart from the long stage when I thought I had attacked too hard and lost studs from my tyres. But there were only a few studs missing so I think it was just the tyre moving around a little bit. I need to try to take a few more seconds advantage over Loeb tomorrow to try to make my lead more comfortable. That won't be easy but I have to drive flat out and keep a close watch on the split times," he added.
Team-mate Hirvonen started the day in fourth. The Finn had to tackle all three morning stages with no power steering and slipped to eighth. A new steering rack was fitted at service and, although the team did not have the opportunity to align the steering wheel, he posted two top three times during the afternoon to climb to fifth. He is 31.0sec behind Grönholm and just 3.1sec behind fourth-placed Henning Solberg.
"It was hard work in the first stage this morning and I was surprised not to lose more time," he said. "Conditions were smoother, icier and faster in the next two tests and the steering problem was less pronounced. The steering felt stiff and seemed to lock in a few corners so I had a few narrow escapes. I think a longer stud might have been better in the tyres but the conditions were really good in the last two morning tests."
"I regained some time this afternoon and I'm up there and fighting. Considering the problem and our road position, it has been a good day and I hope to make up more places tomorrow," he added.
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Five drivers set fastest times in the eight stages. Petter Solberg (Subaru) led this morning but slipped to third this afternoon. Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) was 21st last night after stalling at the stage start but he recovered to win two tests and climb to second. The top six was rounded off by Toni Gardemeister (Mitsubishi), who led last night. The Finn spun on the first stage today but was still third at lunchtime before slipping back. Gigi Galli (Citroen) was the other stage winner, the Italian reaching second before going off this afternoon and dropping four minutes. He is 24th. Henning Solberg (Ford) was the only driver in the top four not to win a stage. Dani Sordo (Citroen) dropped nearly three minutes after going off on the day's opening test while Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) was seventh until he spun in a narrow section of stage seven and dropped to 10th. The only major retirement was Xavi Pons (Mitsubishi). He went off on the day's opening stage, filling the front of his engine with snow. He dropped 14 minutes and then stopped for good near the start of the second pass through the stage this afternoon.
The second and longest leg is again centred around the Hagfors service park. Drivers face two loops of tests east of the town, sandwiched by a pair of stages to the west which were used today. The second stage, the 34.54km Liljendal, is the longest of the rally and the day ends with a second pass over the sprint stage in Hagfors ski arena. After leaving Karlstad at 05.45, competitors face 141.96km of competition before returning for the final overnight halt at 19.20.