Gronholm leads, Atkinson fourth
- 4th August 2007, 9:46am
BP-Ford World Rally Team's flying Finns dominated today's opening leg of Rally Finland to hold first and second positions with the new Focus RS World Rally Car. Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen enjoyed a thrilling daylong battle which captivated the tens of thousands of fans who flocked into the forests near Jyväskylä to cheer on their fellow countrymen. Grönholm ended the leg with a 4.4sec advantage over Hirvonen.
A record 11 Focus RS World Rally Cars started this ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the first following a two-month summer break. It is the largest number of WRCs from a single manufacturer ever seen on a championship round. After last night's super special stage at Killeri trotting track on the edge of the host town of Jyväskylä, the action switched to the spectacular forest roads west of the city this morning where the BP-Ford drivers quickly took control.
Grönholm won eight of the leg's 11 speed tests but that stark fact gives a false impression of the day. Hirvonen harried his colleague throughout the leg, held in overcast but dry conditions, as the BP-Ford duo took the top two times on seven of the 11 stages. The margin between the two Focus RS cars was frequently measured in tenths of a second and after 133.49km of competition, a gap of less than five seconds shows just how hard the duo were battling.
The 39-year-old leader of the drivers' championship led briefly during the first group of stages this morning before Hirvonen fought back to hold the advantage by just 0.1sec after four stages. Grönholm retook the initiative this afternoon and eked out a slender lead on the blisteringly fast gravel roads and roller-coaster jumps during which average speeds topped 132kph.
"It was incredibly fast and there were no huge time gaps," said Grönholm. "I knew it would be difficult to lead today when I was first on the road and that proved the case. I was expecting a close battle with Mikko. He has driven well and I thought he might be in front tonight but I managed to hold him off. When it's as tight as this every stage is important and it's vital to have a good feeling from the recce.
"The first stage this morning was slippery and I made a few small changes to the shock absorbers after the test. My tyre choice was good throughout, especially this afternoon when a harder compound with full cuts made a difference. We've made a step forward with the new car and Loeb is having to push hard. The gap between us is almost double what it was after the first day last year," he added.
Hirvonen won two stages and posted six second fastest times and the 27-year-old was relishing the chance to battle with his more senior colleague. "I've enjoyed every minute of the day and it's an absolutely fantastic fight. Our split times have been virtually identical. It will be a great weekend if it continues like this for three days. My target has always been to win here and I wanted to lead tonight because Marcus knows tomorrow's stages well.
"The new Focus RS feels easier to drive and I had a good feeling with it. The biggest thing I noticed is the improved grip and handling over crests. I'm feeling increasingly confident with it and looking forward to continuing the battle in the morning," he added.
Newcomers Khalid Al Qassimi and Nicky Beech lie 25th after their debut day in a WRC. The Team Abu Dhabi driver concentrated on gaining as much experience as possible. “I started cautiously to learn the rally, the stages and the way the car behaves without making mistakes. I had one moment early in the day when I stalled the engine at a hairpin and lost a little time but nothing too serious. These are wonderful stages, very technical and fast with lots of corners following crests or jumps, so I am balancing speed against developing my pace notes," said 35-year-old Al Qassimi.
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Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) was BP-Ford's closest challenger. The Frenchman held third throughout the day, despite stalling at a hairpin in stage four, but could not match the pace of the Finns ahead. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) is fourth, despite stalling his engine twice and spinning this afternoon, ahead of team-mate Petter Solberg, whose frustrations this morning left him in tears at one point. Major changes to the hydraulics and suspension left the Norwegian in a happier frame of mind this afternoon. Dani Sordo (Citroen) rounded off the top six. Henning Solberg (Ford) was sixth until a power steering problem this afternoon cost 20sec and one place. Manfred Stohl (Citroen) was going strongly in fifth until he became stuck in a ditch on stage four and dropped 20sec. He lies eighth. Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) led after the opening stage this morning but the Finn dropped over two minutes when he slid off on the next stage and later retired when he crashed and broke the right rear wishbone. He will not restart tomorrow.
The second leg is regarded as the classic day of the season and contains more than half the rally's competitive distance. Based mainly on wide and flowing roads near Jämsä, which also hosts a mid-afternoon remote service, it includes some of the sport's great stages. The highlight is two passes over the awesome Ouninpohja, a roller-coaster stretch of road full of blind crests and jumps and viewed as rallying's ultimate test of skill. After leaving Jyväskylä at 06.00 drivers tackle nine stages covering 186.10km before returning to the city for the final overnight halt at 19.25.
Leaderboard after Leg 1
Pos Driver Team Time
1. Gronholm Ford 1h05:18.5
2. Hirvonen Ford +04.4
3. Loeb Citroen +20.2
4. Atkinson Subaru +46.9
5. P Solberg Subaru +57.3
6. Sordo Citroen +1:22.6
7. H Solberg Ford +1:32.8
8. Stohl Citroen +1:45.8
9. Hanninen Mitsubishi +2:01.6
10. Aava Mitsubishi +2:20.9
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