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Gronholm in a class apart in NZ

17 November 2006

BP Ford team leader, Marcus Gronholm completed a clean sweep on Friday following the opening leg to the Rally New Zealand, the penultimate round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship.

Gronholm was 5.9 seconds up on his team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen on the first run through the 20.38 kilometre Pirongia West test, despite hitting a marker pole and knocking his steering out of alignment. He was then again fastest through the long 43.88 kilometre Te Koraha stage [SS2] and as such he increased his early lead to 17.7 seconds, despite the extremely wet and muddy conditions due to overnight rain. Indeed the wet conditions were a godsend for the Finn as he was running first on the road and the rain helped to bind together the gravel.

In the afternoon conditions dried out, but it made no difference to Marcus and he was 4.8 seconds up on Hirvonen in SS3, the second run through Pirongia, before adding another 5.7 seconds to his lead in Te Koraha 2 despite a 'little incident'.

Gronholm then romped through the 3.14 kilometre Mystery Creek super special stage and will now go into the second leg on Saturday, with a 31.2 second advantage.

Mikko meanwhile was 'best of the rest' in every single test, bar SS5, when he only posted the seventh best time. Furthermore while he admitted that he was tempted to try and take the fight to his team-mate, he was all too aware of the importance of finishing, as Ford close in on the manufacturers' crown. He made some changes to his Focus in the mid-day service, in a bid to further fine-tune the car, but he was still not 100 per cent happy on the second loop, mainly because he felt he had opted for tyres that were just too soft.

Daniel Sordo is next up and on course for the final place on the podium - the Spaniard was fourth fastest through the first two tests, despite suffering a left-rear puncture towards the end of SS2. In the afternoon he had to settle for the fifth best times in SS3 and SS4, before he 'passed' Manfred Stohl for third spot in the super special. He will start the second leg on Saturday just 2.2 seconds ahead in his Kronos-run Citroen Xsara.

Stohl began strongly and was third quickest in SS1, SS2 and SS3. However an off in SS4 cost him around 25-30 seconds and he completed the second run through the Te Koraha stage with damage to the front of his OMV-branded Peugeot, something that left the 307 overheating and ultimately dropped him behind Sordo.

Further-down the order, Kronos Citroen's Xavier Pons completes the top five, the Spaniard was sixth fastest in the first two tests of the day - despite two spins in SS1 and technical issues, which meant he had to switch off the boost in SS2. He bounced back in the afternoon though, setting the fourth and third best times on the second runs through Pirongia and Te Koraha. As a result he managed to move ahead of Petter Solberg.

Petter has had a tough day and unlike in Australia, he was unable to match the pace of the front-runners, although he was still fifth fastest in SS1 and SS2 and seventh in SS3 and fourth in SS4. The Norwegian complained of traction problems throughout the day and while he felt changes made to his Impreza in the mid-day service helped improve matters, he was still struggling for grip and was at a loss to explain what precisely was missing.

Petter's brother, Henning didn't fare that well either and he finished the day 30 seconds further back, in seventh place. Henning's big problem occurred in the morning, in the very first test, when a water pipe broke in Pirongia West – just like it did in Cyprus back in September. He completed the stage having had to put up with hot water pouring into the cockpit from the engine and while he managed to fix the problem before the start of SS2, the pace still wasn't really there and he ended the day some way off his OMV Peugeot team-mate, Manfred Stohl.

Luis Perez Companc currently completes the provisional points' scorers' for the Stobart squad. The Argentine was consistent but complained that his road position left him at a disadvantage – with the roads badly cut up and rutted by the time it was his turn to go through the tests.

Of the other WRC runners', Chris Atkinson had a bad start and lost around 30-40 seconds in the first test when he had a spin. His confidence improved as the day went on and he was even second quickest in the super special. However like his SWRT team-mate, Petter Solberg, the Aussie was frustrated with the lack of grip and as such he could only post times towards the bottom end of the top ten in the 'proper' stages.

MotoGP super-star, Valentino Rossi completed the day in 24th position overall. The Italian was extremely cautious to start with, no doubt aware how early he went out on the Rally GB in 2002 – his only other outing in the WRC. He was 33rd fastest in SS1 and 28th quickest in SS2. In the afternoon though he found his feet a bit more, and posted the 20th best times in SS3 and SS4, before finishing off the day with the 13th best time in the super special. All-in-all he maintained he was enjoying the experience and seemingly felt increasing more comfortable in his privately entered Subaru Impreza WRC car as the day went on and he got more miles under his belt.

Stobart VK's Matthew Wilson was the only significant retirement - the Brit had to pull out on the third test of the day, when he had engine problems. If he can re-start on Saturday under the SupeRally he will do so from 34th position overall.

In the Production Car WRC category, Jari-Matti Latvala has gotten off to a good start and he finished the day 11.2 seconds up on Mirco Baldacci. Toshi Arai completes the PCWRC podium 6 seconds or so further back, while Fumio Nutahara is fourth. Nutahara needs a good result if he is to overhaul current PCWRC points' leader, Nasser Al-Attiyah, who has a six-point cushion and who is sixth.

The action now resumes on Saturday - six more stages and another 130-odd competitive kilometres lay in wait, before the second overnight halt. SS6, the 18.18 kilometre run through Port Waikato is scheduled to start at 09.32 hours local time.


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