Gardemeister in third after Corsica's opening skirmish BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen ended today's opening leg of the Rallye de France Tour de Corse in third after an excellent performance over Corsica's...
Gardemeister in third after Corsica's opening skirmish
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen ended today's opening leg of the Rallye de France Tour de Corse in third after an excellent performance over Corsica's winding asphalt. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car was the first of three on the top 10 leaderboard in this 14th round of the FIA World Rally Championship. BP-Ford team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tománek lie seventh in a similar Focus RS, while the privately-entered version of Spaniards Dani Solà and Xavier Amigo is one place ahead in sixth.
Bright sunshine bathed Corsica's capital of Ajaccio all day and this opening leg of three avoided the type of inconsistent weather which is so often a key factor in the Mediterranean island mountains. Competitors tackled 124.88km of action, divided into two identical loops of two special stages south-west of Ajaccio. The sunny weather made tyre choice relatively straightforward and Michelin's medium compound dry weather rubber was the choice for the Focus RS cars all day.
Corsica's abrasive asphalt and twisty roads, which wind around the craggy mountains, always provide a tough test for both man and machine. But Gardemeister and the Focus RS were on good form, setting third fastest time on three of the day's four tests and sixth on the other. The Finn spent the day engrossed in a thrilling battle with Marcus Grönholm. Split by just one second at the midpoint, Gardemeister narrowed the gap on the penultimate stage before powering past his fellow countryman on the final test.
"I've enjoyed today and felt extra-confident with the car," he said. "I didn't test before the rally so I'm using a similar set-up to the one Markko Märtin used when he won the rally in a Focus last year and it's working well. They were difficult, tricky stages. This morning's first stage was wet in some corners and the second test had a few bends that were quite dirty, with gravel and stones on the road. I hit a stone on a corner in the first stage and the wheel felt slightly strange afterwards, but it wasn't a big problem. The grip was good when the road surface was smooth.
"I would like conditions to remain dry tomorrow but Michelin's tyres work well in both the wet and dry so I'm not too worried. Third is good but there are still two days to go so I must try to push harder to increase the time gap over Solberg and try to catch Duval in second," he added.
BP-Ford team-mate Kresta made good progress throughout the day in his similar Focus RS. The 29-year-old Czech, for whom most of the stages here are new after only one previous start in 2002, was 10th on the opening stage but moved up to seventh as the day went on. Kresta survived a bizarre problem when Tománek's door flew open on the last stage and the co-driver had to hold it closed for 4kms while continuing to deliver precisely timed pace notes to his driver.
"This was like my first time here because many roads have changed," said Kresta. "I wrote new pace notes while most other drivers with recent experience have just had to modify theirs. I made a few changes during the morning stages because they were not precise enough. It was hard to drive at maximum pace in those circumstances and I needed a little more confidence in myself."
Kresta stiffened the suspension settings on his Focus RS for the afternoon stages as the roads dried and the temperatures rose. "It was much better. I was quicker and grew in confidence but I didn't take any risks because I didn't want to make any mistakes. The first stage tomorrow morning is long and twisty and that will be tough. But if I can keep my confidence high, it will be a good day," he added.
After posting sixth fastest time on the opening test, Spaniards Dani Solà and Xavier Amigo settled into seventh in their privately-entered Focus RS. They ended the day with an excellent fifth fastest time on the last stage to move into sixth.
"It was difficult to work out the grip when the surface changes so much," said Solà. "I'm not thinking about my times, I'm just concentrating on getting my driving right. I wasn't 100 per cent confident with everything and made a few mistakes but that was down me and not the car. It's just me learning and I don't want to go more than 95 per cent at the moment. I made good tyre choices today and concentrated on getting the set-up right. It's easy to lose time if that's not right and you have to keep changing it."
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Newly-crowned world champion Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was unstoppable. He was comfortably fastest on all four stages to open a 41.3sec lead. Team-mate François Duval held fourth through the morning loop but climbed to second on the penultimate test. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) led the challenge to Loeb this morning. But the Finn fell behind both Duval and Gardemeister in the afternoon before his day ended on an even lower note when his car stopped at the finish of the last stage with transmission troubles and he retired. Team-mates Petter Solberg and Stéphane Sarrazin are fourth and fifth, their only problem coming when the Frenchman spun at the first hairpin on the opening stage. It was a hard day for Mitsubishi. Gigi Galli is their top driver in 10th, but he, Harri Rovanperä and Gilles Panizzi all suffered daylong transmission problems. Panizzi also suffered a broken rear shock absorber this morning and fading brakes this afternoon. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) was the first retirement when he stopped on the liaison section after the opening stage with a slipping clutch. He will restart tomorrow.
The second leg is the longest of the event, drivers facing 124.88km of competition. After leaving Ajaccio at 08.30, competitors again face two identical loops of two stages split by a return to the town for service. This time the route heads north of Ajaccio and the 36.24km test from Vico to Col de Sarzoggiu which starts each loop is the longest of the rally.