Gronholm holds Acropolis Rally lead
- 2nd June 2007, 7:46am
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lead the Acropolis Rally of Greece after an enthralling day's action in the hills near Athens. Despite the disadvantage of starting first on slippery gravel tracks, the Finns built up a 8.3sec lead in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are fifth in another Focus RS after a hard day's driving on rocky roads and in unrelenting high temperatures.
This eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship has provided the closest competition of the season to date. Three different drivers have led and the top six is covered by just 10.7sec after eight speed tests covering 109.42km.
The action began last night when the rally base at Athens' Olympic Equestrian Centre echoed to horsepower of a different kind as it hosted a superspecial stage on the infield of the horse racing track. Hirvonen and Grönholm provided BP-Ford with the perfect start by taking the top two places in front of a capacity 12,000 crowd. The action switched to the hills north-west of Athens today for two identical loops of special stages, split by a test on roads surrounding the Olympic cross-country course at the Markopoulo base.
Championship leader Grönholm and Hirvonen expected a hard morning as they were first and third in the start order. The Greek stages are notorious for being covered in loose gravel and the early start position meant both unwittingly swept the stones clear to allow a cleaner and faster run for those behind. Both opted for half-cuts carved into their medium compound BFGoodrich tyres to help dispel the small stones.
Grönholm moved ahead of his team-mate to lead by winning the morning's opening stage, which was relatively clean. The next three were slippery and the 39-year-old Finn returned to service in fourth, but only 13.0sec from the lead. "It wasn't easy being first on the road because there was plenty of slippery loose gravel," he said. "It was hard to get good grip and only the first stage this morning, when I was fastest, wasn't affected. In those conditions I couldn't have done any more than I did."
The same roads were used again this afternoon, and while they were rougher, they were cleaner and not slippery. Air temperatures climbed to 31°C while ground figures peaked at 43ºC and hard compound tyres were the natural choice. Grönholm capitalised on the strength and reliability of the Focus RS to win another stage and regain the lead on the penultimate test.
"It's great to be leading tonight from my start position. It's been a hard day, but that's normal in Greece, and I lost time this morning by cleaning the road. The time gaps are small and that's unusual, but close competition is good for the sport. Tomorrow morning's long stage will be hard on tyres and I think we will see who is awake and who is sleeping at the end of that test," he added.
Hirvonen had an early morning scare. "We had an interesting service early this morning because after last night's stage I noticed a problem with the gearchange," said the 26-year-old Finn. "The team replaced the hydraulic gearchange system in just 10 minutes before we left this morning, a job for which we would normally allow 25 minutes. It was a fantastic effort but stressful for me watching to see if they could do it in time."
With the problem solved, Hirvonen enjoyed a good morning to return to service in third. Wheelspin cost time on the middle stage this afternoon and he dropped to sixth, before recovering to fifth on the final stage, just 2.0sec from second place. "It's incredible to be only 10sec from the lead and yet in fifth," he added. "It has been a great battle and things are so close that a win is still possible for me. I had no big problems once the stages got under way, although I wasn't happy with my set-up this afternoon because I had a lot of wheelspin and I need to sort that before the long stage tomorrow."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the team's position. "I didn't expect Marcus to be leading having run first on the road," he said. "He had a good test last week and is enjoying the benefits here. Now we must prepare for the long stage tomorrow. Lots will happen in there – and we have to do it again in the afternoon!"
News from our Rivals
Chris Atkinson and Petter Solberg (both Subaru) were revitalised today. Atkinson benefited from a good tyre choice and a late start position to take the lead on the second stage this morning and he stayed there for four stages until Grönholm moved back to the top. Solberg climbed to second mid-morning and held off his pursuers for the rest of the day, Atkinson dropping to third behind his colleague. Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) lies fourth, the Frenchman spinning on the opening stage today and unhappy with his car's set-up and handling. Dani Sordo (Citroen) won one stage and although the Spaniard is fifth, he is only 1.7sec behind third-placed Atkinson. There were two major retirements. François Duval (Skoda) stopped on the liaison section after stage four with engine failure caused by a radiator leak while Estonia's Urmo Aava (Mitsubishi) stopped in the final stage.
The second leg is the longest and toughest of the event. After leaving Markopoulo at 07.30, drivers face eight more stages covering 146.08km, divided into two loops split by service back at Markopoulo. Most of the action is based west of Athens towards Korinthos and each loop begins with the massive 48.88km Agii Theodori, the longest stage of the season to date. There is a 15-minute remote service at Loutraki after each running of the test for drivers to regain their breath. The day ends with a second running of the super special stage at the Olympic Equestrian Centre which opened the action yesterday evening.
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