MÃ¤rtin leads Ford's assault in Sweden's snow and ice Ford Rallye Sport's lead drivers Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park made a solid start to the Swedish Rally to end today's snowy opening leg of the three-day event in seventh in their Focus RS...
Märtin leads Ford's assault in Sweden's snow and ice
Ford Rallye Sport's lead drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park made a solid start to the Swedish Rally to end today's snowy opening leg of the three-day event in seventh in their Focus RS World Rally Car. They enjoyed a troublefree day in the barren and bleak countryside on speed tests which count among the fastest in the FIA World Rally Championship season, despite being covered in snow and ice.
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie 15th in their Focus RS but the third Ford Rallye Sport car of François Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin retired after crashing and breaking the front suspension on the day's penultimate special stage. Privately-entered Finns Janne Tuohino and Jukka Aho used their experience of the winter conditions to good effect to lie ninth in another Focus RS.
Competitors tackled six stages covering 125.79km based around the service park at Hagfors, an hour's journey north of the rally base in Karlstad. Temperatures held steady throughout the day at about -8°C, far more bearable than during yesterday's final test session which began at a numbing -24°C.
The recent cold spell in the Varmland region of Sweden ensured the roads were in perfect conditions for the only true winter event in the championship. A solid ice base and snow banks lining the special stages offered a classic Swedish Rally setting. However, regular snow flurries proved a handicap for the first few cars on the road, including Märtin, who swept away the snow to leave a cleaner and quicker line for those behind.
Märtin found the stages more slippery than expected and took a while to become accustomed to the conditions. "When I braked for the first corner on the opening stage, I gave myself quite a scare," said the 27-year-old Estonian. However, he settled into a consistent rhythm and was always on the top 10 leaderboard. He ended the leg with second fastest time on the short final stage around the sports arena and race track in Hagfors to leave him 1min 05sec behind leader Marcus Grönholm.
"That was great because I saw a lot of spectators carrying Estonian flags so it was nice to put on a good performance for them. I'm looking forward to a better road position tomorrow and if the weather clears, without the snow we've had today, I will be happier. It's been a pretty solid day although I was almost an unwelcome visitor into a house on the penultimate stage. The building was right on the inside of a corner and when I turned in, the car oversteered a little. We missed it by just a few centimetres. It was really close!" he added. A new rear differential was fitted to Martin's Focus at the final service this evening to try to reduce minor oversteer in high-speed sections.
Tuohino, who excelled on this rally last year, was again in top form. "I had a really good day. I was a little cautious on the first stage and being safe costs time. The only thing to worry about was in the last stage when I lost my concentration because the oil pressure indicator on the dashboard started flashing. There was no problem, it was just a faulty indicator but it broke my concentration," he said.
Hirvonen, competing on only his fifth world rally, delivered a mature display. Intent on learning the nature of the stages to increase his experience and unwilling to take risks, he was still fast. "It's fantastic to drive on snow and ice, so much fun. I'm trying to learn as much as I can, as quickly as I can. This morning I think I was braking too early and turning into bends too soon but that's all down to experience," he added.
The 22-year-old Finn lost a handful of seconds when he twice stalled the engine of his Focus in the fourth stage. "We stalled at a couple of tight junctions. I'm not sure whether it was my fault or the car's," he added. Duval was 10th fastest through the opening stage but his confidence took a knock when he cut a right hand bend too much and hit a snow bank in the next test. "I was worried we might have filled the radiator with snow so I took it easy for the rest of the way," said the 22-year-old Belgian.
However, his rally ended in an incident which caused the penultimate test to be cancelled. "We were about 1km from the end when I felt a problem with the right front wheel," he said. "Maybe I hit something earlier or on the previous test but when I turned into a left-hand bend I couldn't steer. I spun into a snow bank and we damaged the front left of the car, which ended up sideways in the road, blocking the track. Both front suspension struts were broken and we couldn't move it out of the way."
A queue of cars built up until an official's vehicle, which entered the stage from the finish, was able to move the car out of the way. The damage meant Duval, who was 19th, could not continue and rally officials later cancelled the test and scrubbed the times of those who completed it before the accident.
Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson was pleased with Martin's performance. "He produced a very solid day's driving. He didn't make any mistakes when others around him did and he should have a better road position tomorrow from which to climb the leaderboard," he said.
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Monte Carlo Rally winner Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) set the pace on the opening stage but running first on the road in the fresh snow proved a huge handicap and he fell back to 18th. Last year's Swedish Rally winner Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) posted three fastest times en route to opening a 27.0sec lead over Tommi Mäkinen (Subaru). Grönholm's team-mates, Richard Burns and Harri Rovanperä, held third and fourth despite a minor differential problem for the Briton and a spin for the Finn on the third stage. Mäkinen was untroubled apart from a spin in the same test but team-mate Petter Solberg lies eighth after going off on the opening stage and feeling unhappy with his car's handling and set-up. Citroen's newcomers failed to make the same impact as in Monte Carlo. Colin McRae spun into a snow bank on the second stage, losing 40sec, while Carlos Sainz survived a 170kph, sixth gear spin on the next test but dropped 30sec. Sainz lies 12th with McRae 13th. Didier Auriol (Skoda) dropped two minutes after going off but team-mate Toni Gardemeister went well to lie sixth.
The second leg is again based around the Hagfors service park and covers similar territory to today. It begins with a repeat of the 43.69km Granberget test and ends with a second run at the short Hagfors Sprint stage. In between are four more stages, providing a total of 140.37km of competition. It is the longest leg in terms of both distance and time, drivers leaving Karlstad at 05.30 and returning at 19.04.