Gronholm all but guaranteed victory?
3 June 2006
BP Ford team leader, Marcus Gronholm will go into the final leg of the Acropolis Rally on Sunday, the eighth round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship, with a commanding lead.
The Finn was kept honest all day on Saturday by Sebastien Loeb and although the Frenchman only won two of the six tests, while Gronholm won the other four, the gap between the two remained fixed at around 25-30 seconds at least it did until the final test of the day, the second run through Psartha.
Loeb encountered major problems on SS13, when his left rear tyre exploded 1 km from the start. As such he dropped back and Gronholm's now enjoys a 1 minute 47.2 seconds lead going into the overnight halt.
"Now I feel lucky," said Gronholm following the final test of the day. "It is easier now, but I still have to finish tomorrow. I am happy driving such a good car."
Loeb though despite having to struggle through the final test and then back to the service in Athens, at least remains on course to take the runners-up spot in his Kronos Racing-run Xsara.
Petter Solberg meanwhile was not so fortunate and after slipping down to third following problems this morning, which included a small off in SS10, he was again struck by misfortune this afternoon, when he was forced to retire from the leg on the road section to SS13. The Norwegian had to swerve to avoid a car coming towards him on the wrong side of the road and collided with a rock wall. Luckily nobody was injured in the incident but broken steering components made it impossible for him to continue. Assuming he can re-start tomorrow under the SupeRally format he will do so from ninth.
Mikko Hirvonen moved up into third as a result of Petter's incident after another solid day at the wheel of his Focus. The Finn is a good minute up on Daniel Sordo, who put in a charge to climb from ninth to fourth in the third Kronos-run Xsara. The Spaniard ended the day 3 seconds or so up on OMV Peugeot's Manfred Stohl, while Henning Solberg completes the top six, a further 3 seconds back in the sister 307 WRC.
Henning had brake problems on SS9 this morning and had to disconnect the damaged rear brakes prior to SS10. However he was two minutes late starting Psatha 1 and as such picked up a 20 second penalty. Without that he would have been ahead of his team-mate and Sordo.
Further-down the order, Toni Gardemeister is seventh, the Finn enjoying a reasonable day in his Astra Racing Citroen Xsara WRC, while Xavier Pons is eighth and on course to take the final drivers' point. Pons had a few issues during the day, but nothing that was too notable.
Of the rest Mitsubishi privateer, Jussi Valimaki completes the top ten while Stobart VK ace, Matthew Wilson is eleventh and Red Bull Skoda team leader, Harri Rovanpera, 12th, around 4 minutes up on his young team-mate, Andreas Aigner, who will start tomorrow from 15th.
A number of drivers had problems today and while numerous crews suffered with punctures, for example Gardemeister, Sordo and Stohl all had three punctures each in SS13, all managed to keep going even if it did cost them varying amounts of time.
In addition to Petter Solberg, the biggest name to be forced out, Chris Atkinson also retired from the leg - going out in SS13 in the sister 'works' Subaru Impreza, as a result of the steering damage sustained on SS12. Kosti Katajamaki, Francois Duval and Jan Kopecky also had problems in the final loop, gearbox issues accounting for Katajamaki and Duval, while a broken rear wheel meant Kopecky couldn't finish SS12. Assuming they will re-start under the SupeRally system, Atkinson will do so from 14th, one place behind Katajamaki, while Duval is 16th overnight and Kopecky 18th.
In the Production Car WRC, Gabriel Pozzo led all day, until the final test, when he hit problems and dropped back to second. That handed Nasser Al-Attiyah the top spot and he now lies 30 seconds or so up on Pozzo, with Aki Teiskonen third. Mirco Baldacci is next up in the PCWRC category, while Jari-Matti Latvala and Toshi Arai are fifth and sixth respectively.
The Acropolis Rally now resumes on Sunday, with the final day comprising five tests and around 100 competitive kilometres. The action will finish as it started on Thursday, with another run through the Athens Olympic Stadium Super Special, which starts at 14.15 hours local time [12.15 hours British time].
More to follow then...