Friday 9th February Drivers were treated to near-perfect winter rally conditions on the opening day's action of the International Swedish Rally, second round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Snowfalls yesterday created high banks along ...
Friday 9th February
Drivers were treated to near-perfect winter rally conditions on the opening day's action of the International Swedish Rally, second round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Snowfalls yesterday created high banks along the side of the stages, allowing the sport's top stars to use every inch of the road - and more besides - as they fought for seconds.
Technical:The three works Focus RS WRC01s of Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae and François Delecour have experienced no major technical problems today. A wrong tyre choice cost Delecour time in SS4, while Sainz suffered a major vibration in the front of his car in the same test. He attributed the problem to a broken mousse insert in a tyre.
Sporting: Colin McRae featured near the head of the leaderboard after two stages, but he slid into a snow bank in SS3 and dropped out of contention for victory. But Sainz has featured in the top three for much of today's action. Delecour survived a scare in SS1 when he came across a rock in the middle of the road, and he held a top ten position.
Carlos Sainz: "It's a close fight. We've seen today that it's very easy to make a mistake at any time, so we can't take anything for granted. At the moment, I'd say that Thomas (Radstrom), Tommi (Makinen) and Harri (Rovanpera) are my nearest threats.
Colin McRae: "I came into the corner and tried to lean on the snow bank on the outside. But everyone else had been doing it so the bank was weakened, and I went straight through it. We still have a chance of points, so we can only try."
Technical: Reigning world champion Marcus Gronholm was forced out of the lead - and into retirement - when his 206 WRC's engine expired at the end of stage two. The team has attributed the failure to a cylinder head gasket problem. Didier Auriol's 206 suffered no major problems, but Harri Rovanpera's example completed the opening three stages with brake glitches.
Sporting: Gronholm grabbed the lead on the first stage, only to have to retire when his engine's temperature went off the scale in SS2. Auriol, meanwhile, is feeling slightly better after he spent much of yesterday in bed with bronchitis. He did enough to force his way into the top six after the day's longest stage. Harri Rovanpera's first run in a 206 WRC started well and he led after SS2. He swapped times with the leaders to hold the final podium place after SS4.
Marcus Gronholm: "It looked like the same problem we had in Monte Carlo but the team say it isn't. It's not a good start to the season for us - two starts and no points - and I'm sure we could have scored a good result here."
Didier Auriol: "Sometimes my reactions are slow so I'm not pushing at maximum. But the times aren't bad so perhaps we can get some points." Harri Rovanpera: "I'm not taking any risks, not doing anything stupid. The car feels fantastic and I'm learning more about it all the time."
Technical: Four-times world champion Tommi Makinen has encountered few mechanical problems apart from overheating tyres in the day's longest stage, the 49km of SS4. But team-mate Freddy Loix notched up road penalties in service after SS3, when the Mitsubishi mechanics had to fix a broken turbo. The third Lancer, driven by Swede Thomas Radstrom, has run without major problems.
Sporting: Makinen's progress has been hampered by his position of first car on the road. He encountered a layer of fine, powdery snow in SS1 and SS3, and spectators in the road in the latter test as well. He was therefore satisfied to hold a top-four position. Freddy Loix has struggled to build his confidence thanks to a major spin in SS1, and he slid off the road for three minutes in SS4. Radstrom has featured strongly throughout today's stages, and despite thinking he had a puncture after a heavy landing in SS4, he held a narrow lead.
Tommi Makinen said: "The spectators just couldn't hear us because of the high snow banks. I had to brake quite hard." Thomas Radstrom said: "I could probably push a bit harder in places but you have to approach corners differently with this car than I'm used to. I'm learning all the time, and I think I can go quicker still tomorrow."
Technical: Kenneth Eriksson's Accent WRC has run without problems, but Alister McRae's example suffered a cracked turbo pipe in the long test, losing boost and dropping more than a minute and a half to the Scot's team-mate.
Sporting: Eriksson is determined to score a good result on home soil and the Swede has held a top-ten placing throughout the opening day, despite being held up by Colin McRae's snow dust after the Ford driver rejoined the route after an accident. A fifth-fastest time in the longest test, SS4, was enough to lift Eriksson into sixth. Alister McRae was equally keen to stay close to Eriksson's pace and he did so, until turbo pipe problems cost him valuable time in SS4.
Kenneth Eriksson: "The car's been working really well and perhaps it's better to run a bit further back, but when people hit the snow banks they knock fresh snow into our path as well. It's good to be able to fight for points placings."
Technical: The Subaru Impreza 44Ss of Richard Burns, Markko Martin and Petter Solberg have been well-behaved mechanically, although the team's two young guns - Martin and Solberg - both suffered tyre problems in SS4. Martin punctured his right-rear tyre and damaged the car's brakes and bodywork, while Solberg had to cope with a vibration after a mousse insert exploded. Martin's car also stuck in sixth gear during the fourth stage.
Sporting: Richard Burns's hopes of even a point from this event disappeared in SS2, when the Englishman slid his Impreza onto the top of a snowbank and lost more than 12 minutes. Markko Martin held a promising fourth place until he suffered a puncture in SS4, while Petter Solberg adopted a steady approach to hold a top ten placing.
Richard Burns: "I braked too late at the end of a sixth gear section and I knew the car wouldn't make it round the corner. I got turned in, but then it went straight through the snow bank on the outside. We'll continue - I can play with the car a bit, and there are some new stages to see."
Markko Martin said: "The puncture was disappointing because our times had been good up to that point. I'm just glad to get some kilometres after such short rallies before now! I still don't quite trust the car - I need more experience for that."
Technical: Armin Schwarz struggled in the first three stages with a lack of hydraulic pressure in his Octavia WRC's differentials, and then the car's suspension softened towards the end of SS4. Bruno Thiry had fewer problems, and the Belgian gained more confidence with the car after he resorted to differential settings he last used on the Rally GB in 1999.
Sporting: Both Skoda drivers have been pleased by the Octavia's performance on its first visit to the International Swedish Rally. Schwarz was determined to gain experience but he still held 13th overall after the 49km SS4, Granberget. Thiry, meanwhile, enthused about the car's handling on fast, open sections and he lay just outside the top ten.
Armin Schwarz: "We need to learn here, so it's important not to make a silly mistake and slide off the road. It was difficult in the first three stages, but the performance in the long test was more encouraging. I think we can improve performance as the rally progresses."
The strongest performance from a non-factory crew has been Swedish national driver Daniel Carlsson, who pushed his Toyota Corolla into the top ten. But in the FIA Teams Cup section, Pasi Hagstrom's Corolla set the pace, comfortably clear of reigning European champion Henrik Lundgaard.
Locals dominated the Group N section for more standard machinery, with Stig-Olov Walfridsson leading the category from Kenneth Backlund.
Michelin's teams all opted for the French firm's asymmetric tyre to cope with the thin layer of powdery snow, while Pirelli's teams switched between an ice tyre and a snow tyre. François Delecour in particular perceived the latter option as less effective on the day's longest stage.