Gronholm targets podium finish
- 12th August 2006, 8:25am
The ability to forecast the weather in south-west Germany's Eifel Mountains was as important as the skills of the drivers today. Rain fell intermittently throughout the leg, which was based on the bumpy and narrow roads of the Mosel vineyards. Those with the ability to predict when and where it would fall, and make their tyre choice accordingly, fared better than those who judged wrongly and had to drive roads with the wrong rubber fitted to their cars.
After last night's opening ceremony in the shadow of Trier's Porta Nigra Roman gate, which was attended by huge crowds, the action today switched to the speed tests alongside the picturesque Mosel river. Drivers tackled two identical loops of four special stages covering 134.72km.
Torrential overnight rain left the stages streaming with water. Both Grönholm and Hirvonen opted for BF-Goodrich's soft compound intermediate rubber on their Focus RS cars for the morning's comnpetition, with small cuts carved into the rubber to disperse the water.
Conditions on the opening 20.04km test were treacherous and Grönholm slid off the road on four occasions, but amazingly dropped only 20 seconds and set fifth fastest time. Although rising temperatures caused the once-wet roads to dry out completely, the 38-year-old Finn was third and second on the final two tests of the loop to end the morning in third. Drier weather was forecast for this afternoon so Grönholm opted for medium compound dry tyres. However, heavy rain fell on three of the four stages and simply staying on the road demanded all Grönholm's skills.
"It was a hard and difficult day, and not one that I enjoyed," he said. "I've not tested in the rain on asphalt with the Focus because we couldn't find any rain this summer! Our settings this morning were too soft for the conditions and I had a lot of understeer and oversteer with the car. I went off the road so many times on the first stage that I couldn't believe what was happening.
"The rain this afternoon was incredible. The forecast said it would be dry after lunch so I chose hard, dry weather tyres and I couldn't do anything apart from try to stay on the road. I took it easy in the rain but found it hard to get my confidence and rhythm back when it stopped. It's difficult to choose tyres when the weather changes so quickly and we made a mistake this afternoon. But there are still many kilometres remaining and tomorrow's stages won't be easy for anyone so we will see what happens then," he added.
Hirvonen's tyre choices mirrored those of Grönholm. He too slithered off the road several times on the opening stage and ended the morning ninth. Despite the wrong tyres he made no mistakes in the afternoon rain and second fastest on the dry final stage enabled the 26-year-old to climb to seventh.
"Today was unreal and I hate this weather," he said. "The grip changed all the time and I'm just not used to these conditions with this car. My day was typified by stage seven. Five minutes before I started it was dry and sunny. It poured with rain as I started the stage and then a few hundred metres after the finish the roads were dry again! Hard tyres in heavy rain just don't work and it shows the importance of getting the tyre choice right. I hope the weather will be better tomorrow because if it is as wet as it has been today, then the stages will be incredibly slippery."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said a decision on car set-up for tomorrow's stages would be made in the morning when the weather forecasts had been analysed. "We were caught out by the rain this afternoon but I sensed we could struggle in the rain because we haven't been able to test in these conditions. When it was dry today, we were fast so I hope it stays dry tomorrow," he said.
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Team-mates Sébastien Loeb and Dani Sordo (both Citroen) dominated the leg. Loeb, a four time winner here, won five stages while Sordo claimed three as Loeb ended with a 42.7sec lead over the Spaniard. Private entrant Toni Gardemeister (Citroen) excelled in the rain to steadily climb the leaderboard into third. Petter Solberg (Subaru) held fifth, a remarkable position considering the Norwegian crashed heavily in the final shakedown test yesterday morning. Mechanics only finished rebuilding his car at 03.30 this morning. Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) rounded off the top six, despite a bad tyre choice this afternoon. François Duval (Skoda) was sixth until the Belgian hit a tree and damaged his car's suspension on the penultimate stage. He didn't start the final test. The other major retirement was Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford), who crashed on the opening stage.
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