Long-time leaders Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park had their hopes of becoming the first non-Nordic drivers to win the Swedish Rally dashed this afternoon when their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car slid into a snowbank and broke the rear suspension.
Long-time leaders Markko Märtin and Michael Park had their hopes of becoming the first non-Nordic drivers to win the Swedish Rally dashed this afternoon when their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car slid into a snowbank and broke the rear suspension. Although the Ford BP Rallye Sport duo managed to recover and stay in a points-scoring position, it is Finns Janne Tuohino and Jukka Aho who lead the Ford challenge on this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship in fourth place.
Tuohino, driving an M-Sport-run Focus RS and making his debut for Ford, has kept clear of trouble in treacherous conditions which have caught out many of the top drivers. Märtin lies eighth but Ford BP team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot dropped to 46th after spending almost 45 minutes in a ditch when they were caught out in the snowy conditions.
Fears that last night's heavy rain would accelerate the recent thaw in the pine forests of central Sweden proved unfounded. As temperatures dropped, the rain turned to snow and the drivers awoke this morning to find a fresh layer of snow covering the fragile ice, with temperatures hovering around -2°C all day. Despite the return of the wintry weather, there were still sections where exposed gravel ensured that conditions would remain unpredictable.
Eight speed tests covering 152.40km comprised the longest leg of the three-day rally, which Märtin and Park started with a 23.3sec lead in their Castrol-backed Focus RS. They extended that to a maximum of 30.0sec until their victory bid ended shortly after the start of the 20.78km Sundsjön test.
"I leaned the car into a snowbank but hidden in it was a rock and the impact shattered the rear left suspension," said Märtin. "The car ended in the middle of the road with the rear wheel folded underneath but eventually we were able to finish the stage, although there was no drive on that side of the car because of the damage. It wasn't a particularly quick bend, maybe third gear, but we went into it slightly too fast. Leaning on snowbanks is part of the tactics on this rally but they're so soft because of the mild weather that the car doesn't bounce off them in the normal manner. You can't trust them."
The 28-year-old Estonian dropped six minutes and the Ford BP mechanics faced a race against time to rebuild the rear of the Focus RS during the following service. They completed a superb job in the 20 minutes allowed, replacing the brakes, shock absorber, suspension arm and rear differential, to enable Märtin to re-enter the fray without further penalties. "The impact had pushed the driveshaft into the differential and broke it," said team director Malcolm Wilson. "That damage was only discovered 10 minutes into the service and so we had to replace the differential as well. The technicians did a fantastic job, especially in these cold and snowy conditions."
Märtin dropped to ninth but climbed one position to end the day back in the points. "The result was there on a plate for us but now it has gone and that was my mistake. I just leaned a bit harder than everyone else on that snowbank. I'm really disappointed and sorry for the team. Tomorrow we must make sure we can bring some points back," he added.
Tuohino escaped several brushes with the snowbanks this morning. "I hit them on three separate occasions because I pushed too hard," said the 28-year-old Finn. "Twice we slid sideways into the banks and on the other occasion I went in forwards." But having been too aggressive, he ended the day annoyed with himself after being too cautious through the long 39.95km Vargäsen to lose third place. "I was far too careful and that was stupid. Then I stalled the engine twice in the final stage. Tomorrow I'm going to have to go as fast as I can, without taking too many risks, to try to regain third. The problem is that I'm not sure I can do that safely because I still don't know the car so well."
Duval maintained his overnight eighth until he was caught out on the fourth stage of the day. "I had a big understeer going into a corner and then went into a ditch," said 23-year-old Duval. "Maybe my pace notes were too optimistic for that section. There was only one spectator there and he carried on filming! It was 30 minutes before any other people arrived to help. My time loss wasn't so important. Just to be here and try to finish and gain more experience is what is important. We've made many alterations to our pace notes and that will help us enormously in the future."
Duval emphasised his point by setting fourth fastest time through Sundsjön, a test tackled earlier in the morning when he made modifications to his pace notes that were reflected by an improved performance during the second pass.
It was a disappointing day for Wilson. "A potentially great result has gone from our grasp. Markko was controlling his lead but made a costly mistake. But Janne is driving exceptionally well and we still have both our cars in the points so we must aim to consolidate that tomorrow," he said.
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Märtin's disappointment was joy for Sebastien Loeb (Citroen). He inherited the lead and after winning three speed tests, he ended the day with an advantage of 40.6sec over Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot). Grönholm recovered well from yesterday's power steering failure to win four stages. However, a spin near the start of the 39.95km Vargåsen cost 15 seconds.
Petter Solberg (Subaru) went off the road for 45 seconds on the opening stage and later hit the same rock as Märtin, but the damage was less serious and he lies third. Carlos Sainz (Citroen) lies fifth behind Tuohino, despite losing nearly a minute when he went off the road this morning and had to stop and clear snow from his radiator.
Another to go off was Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) who dropped six minutes after sliding into a snowbank and getting stuck. He is ninth. Kristian Sohlberg (Mitsubishi) retired after exceeding his permitted time following transmission problems in service before the opening stage while Freddy Loix (Peugeot) dropped almost two minutes after going off on the second test. He then retired on the penultimate stage with engine problems.
The final leg of the rally is the shortest with just 96.60km of competition. After leaving Karlstad for the second consecutive day at 05.30, drivers face two loops of two stages close to the Hagfors service park. They return to Karlstad for the finish ceremony at 16.38.