Survival the name of the game in Greece
- 1st June 2008, 8:33am
Competitors feared today's speed tests west of Athens could be car breakers and so they proved. The three special stages were already rough in the morning's first pass. Their condition deteriorated after the passage of almost 60 cars and rocks littered the tracks for the repeat run this afternoon, providing the sternest challenge for cars' suspensions. With shade temperatures again topping 30ºC, the mix of rough roads and extreme heat provided the toughest conditions yet for Pirelli's Scorpion tyres.
Hirvonen was eager to forget last night's suspension troubles which dropped him to seventh. He started in style winning the opening 32.16km test, the longest and most feared of today's six stages, covering 119.12km. However, the 27-year-old Finn damaged his car's suspension and brakes in the next test and dropped 2min 30sec in the final two stages of the loop to fall to eighth.
"It was my mistake," he admitted. "In a slow corner I slid wide and the car hit a bank. It seemed harmless but the impact broke the rear right brake disc. I isolated the brakes on that corner of the car and started the next stage with just three brakes. But 4km after the start the suspension broke and I finished the stage with virtually no brakes. I think the suspension must have been damaged in the previous stage but I didn't notice anything."
The team replaced the rear differential and the suspension on all four corners in service before Hirvonen steered clear of trouble this afternoon to climb back to fourth, winning two more stages. "My position could have been much worse because I've never driven a rally this rough. I saved the car and tyres this afternoon to come home in one piece. I'm sure everyone will take it easier tomorrow and not take risks. The stages are in better condition and my aim is simply to finish, not to attack," he said.
Team-mate Latvala restarted in sixth after suspension problems last night. The 23-year-old Finn enjoyed a superb morning, winning one test and finishing second in the other two to climb to fourth, just 47.4sec off the lead. However, a turbo problem forced him to drive all three afternoon stages with no boost pressure. He lost about 8min to drop back to eighth overall.
"I was at the start of the first stage this afternoon with the car in launch control mode when I heard a noise like pressure being released," he said. "The boost pipe from the turbo had burst and I had to drive all three stages with no boost. I tried to fix it after the first stage but it blew off again. I was unlucky but this rally hasn't been kind to me and I hope the next round in Turkey will be better. My aim tomorrow is to set good stage times and build my confidence to go there in two weeks.
"I felt confident with the whole package this morning – me, the car and the tyres. The roads were rougher than yesterday so I drove sensibly to avoid punctures. I knew others were having problems so I drove steadily and more softly in the braking areas so as not to take risks," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 11th in another Focus RS, despite stalling at the start of stage 10 and spinning later in the test. "This is, alongside Sweden, the toughest rally I have done in the WRC, but for different reasons. Sweden was new terrain for me and a new test for my technique and ability. Acropolis is a test of both man and machine and to survive in this rally you have to stay focused and have a bit of luck with the car – hopefully mine is all being saved for tomorrow. These stages take so much out of you – it's as punishing on the drivers as it is on the cars. You have to make on-the-spot decisions about whether you want to push or back off," said Al Qassimi.
BP-Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson described the event as 'one of the toughest Acropolis rallies we've seen in recent years.' "I'm shocked at the damage the cars are incurring compared to previous years. We started today with such high spirits but it has been another difficult leg. But both cars are in the points and I'm pleased with the way both Mikko and Jari-Matti preserved their tyres," he said.
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Few drivers escaped without problems, including leader Sébastien Loeb (Citroen). The Frenchman lost the lead to team-mate Dani Sordo after puncturing on the second stage. He regained it this afternoon when Sordo lost six minutes with punctures of his own, sliding to seventh. Petter Solberg (Subaru) holds second just 28.7sec behind Loeb, ahead of brother Henning (Ford). Urmo Aava (Citroen) lies fifth behind Hirvonen, despite losing 2min 30osec with a puncture this morning and Stobart driver Matthew Wilson (Ford) is sixth. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) retired before the second stage with an electrical problem. Munchi's Aris Vovos (Ford) retired on the same test with a steering problem and Stobart driver Gigi Galli (Ford) failed to start the opening stage this afternoon with hydraulic troubles. Per-Gunnar Andersson (Suzuki) retired at the end of stage 11 with broken rear suspension and team-mate Toni Gardemeister dropped four minutes this afternoon with turbo troubles.
The final day offers another 102.32km of gruelling competition. After starting at 05.50, drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages north-west of Athens before a second pass over the Tatoi super special stage on the edge of the service park. The finish takes place there at 15.03.
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