Gronholm fast, but Loeb still leads
- 13th August 2006, 6:42am
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen were also in winning form on this ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. They claimed one special stage victory as they moved into fifth in their similar BP Ultimate and Castrol-branded Focus RS.
Both BP-Ford's Finnish pairings gained in confidence as the rain that soaked yesterday's opening leg gave way to sunshine and dry roads. Tyre selection became easier and both stayed with BF Goodrich's dry weather rubber all day. They were able to switch their Focus RS World Rally Cars to the dry asphalt set-up with which they are familiar as the team won three of the seven speed tests.
Today's 148.64km of action was focused mainly on the daunting Baumholder military land south-east of the host city of Trier. Four stages were based on the rough and slippery tracks, more frequently used by US soldiers for tank training. Constant surface changes and huge kerbstones, designed to keep the tanks on the roads, provided the kind of challenge not seen anywhere else in the championship. The day ended with a spectacular test through the streets of St Wendel.
Grönholm spun on the opening stage but made his move up the order as the roads dried in late morning and this afternoon. He won two stages and was second fastest on three more as he passed Toni Gardemeister for third and opened a 25.7sec advantage over his fellow countryman.
"We swapped the settings back to those we used on the pre-event test, which was dry, and the car felt good," he said. "It's just in the wet that I'm struggling because I don't have the confidence. I need to practise driving in the wet to find the right set-up for this car, but there hasn't been much rain this summer to do that. It has been so much better in the dry today. Slick tyres in the rain are just not for me.
"Now I have to fight to stay on the podium because I cannot catch Dani Sordo in second. I just hope there is no more rain tomorrow so that our tyre choices are easy. If the stages stay dry then I can keep Toni behind, but if it rains or it is damp then I'm in trouble," he added.
Hirvonen, too, showed his pace as conditions improved. The 26-year-old started the day in seventh and climbed two places to return to the final overnight halt in Trier just 16.6sec behind fourth-placed Gardemeister. "I've set good times and matched Marcus which I'm happy about," he said. "We got our tyre choices right today and I had really good grip. I lost time in the slippery sections this morning because I didn't have the courage to push, but when I reached a good section with lots of grip I maybe didn't have the confidence to push as hard as I should have done.
"I only had one small problem when I drove for about 15km with a big vibration. I thought a wheel bearing was damaged but it turned out to be only a broken mousse inside the tyre. I will try to catch Toni tomorrow but the key factor will again be tyres and everyone will be nervous. I'm not sure I can catch him if we both make the same tyre choice because there are not enough kilometres remaining but if we take different options then it's possible," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was much happier tonight than he had been 24 hours earlier. "It was a better day, primarily due to the dry conditions. We set three fastest times which proves our dry weather set-up works well and I'm pleased that the drivers regained their confidence," he said.
News from our Rivals
Sébastien Loeb and Dani Sordo (both Citroen) continue to head the leaderboard but were not as dominant today and won only one stage each. The young Spaniard beat Loeb on all the first four stages and the Frenchman's first leg lead of 42.7sec was reduced to 34.3sec. Toni Gardemeister (Citroen) struggled for grip and could not hold off Grönholm while Hirvonen also closed in. Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) rounded off the top six, despite clutch and gearbox problems. Stéphane Sarrazin and Chris Atkinson (both Subaru) were caught out by the weather this afternoon when both chose intermediate tyres on roads that turned out to be dry. They are eighth and 10th. Mattias Ekström (Skoda) fell off the leaderboard when he dropped four minutes with transmission troubles and a broken driveshaft on the final loop cost another four minutes. Petter Solberg (Subaru) retired from fifth with engine failure on the opening stage and will not restart tomorrow. Xavi Pons (Citroen) retired with gearbox troubles in service after stage 12.
The final leg is the shortest of the event with just 68.19km of competition. After leaving Trier at 07.00, drivers tackle four stages in the Saarland region before returning to the city for the finish at 12.24. After a 10-minute service before the first stage, there is no further opportunity for service.
Leaderboard after Leg 2
1. S Loeb/D Elena F Citroen Xsara 2hr 47min 53.5sec
2. D Sordo/M Marti E Citroen Xsara 2hr 48min 27.8sec
3. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Ford Focus RS 2hr 50min 07.6sec
4. T Gardemeister/J Honkanen FIN Citroen Xsara 2hr 50min 33.3sec
5. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 2hr 50min 49.9sec
6. M Stohl/I Minor A Peugeot 307 2hr 51min 13.5sec
7. A Aigner/K Wicha A Skoda Fabia 2hr 52min 35.6sec
8. S Sarrazin/S Prévot F Subaru Impreza 2hr 52min 48.2sec
9. J Kopecky/F Schovanek CZ Skoda Fabia &nbs p; 2hr 53min 05.2sec
10 C Atkinson/G MacNeall AUS Subaru Impreza 2hr 53min 16.6sec
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