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Gronholm leads as Solberg hunts

1 December 2006

Marcus Gronholm holds a lead of just under half a minute at the end of the opening leg of Wales Rally GB, although Petter Solberg remains close enough to put the pressure on the BP Ford man in the two days remaining in the WRC season finale.

Gronholm made the ideal start to the day when he set the pace on the opening run through the 17.41km Port Talbot stage, and followed that up by also posting the quickest times on both Resolfen 1 and Rheola 1 before the return to the Swansea service park for the mid-day service.

Into the afternoon, the Finn lost time time to Solberg on the repeat run through Port Talbot as he was only third quickest before the matching the Subaru man exactly on the penultimate stage of the day. However the final run through Rheola saw Solberg take over eight seconds out of Gronholm's lead, although the Finn wasn;t concerned at seeing his lead cut to 25.8secs after an opening leg characterised by tough stage conditions due to overnight rain.

"It was normal Rally GB conditions this morning with plenty of mud, but no standing water," the championship runner-up said. "First through the stages was the best place to be in those conditions. We pushed hard but took no risks. This afternoon I was not in such a fighting mood, I drove a little too safely and Petter closed in. But I am where I wanted to be tonight and tomorrow I will push hard again.

"Tomorrow's stages are shorter and tricky, especially if it rains and that seems likely. I want to keep Petter behind me but he is always fast on this rally and that won't be easy. I must wake up early and push hard if I am to stand a chance of winning."

For Solberg, eager to give Subaru a winning end to a difficult 2006, the day didn't start well when his Impreza stalled at a hairpin during the opening stage. Losing time as a result, he lay fourth heading into SS2 where the third fastest time allowed him to close the gap to third placed Manfred Stohl.

Jumping ahead of Stohl on SS3, 'Hollywood' was up to second when the teams headed back out into the stages in the afternoon when Ford's Mikko Hirvonen was forced to retire from second place due to damage sustained when he hit a rock on SS1.

Although Stohl claimed back some time on the second run through Port Talbot. Solberg was fastest on the final two stages of the day to leave him comfortable in second place and hopeful of continuing his form into leg two.

“It's been ages since we were able to take so much time from anybody and that's very motivating,” he said. “I hope we can continue like this tomorrow – I think it is going to be a very interesting day.”

For Stohl, coming into the event on the back of another impressive performance last time out in New Zealand, the day passed without major incident as he posted leading stage times throughout the day. Only on the final stages of the leg did Solberg manage to pull out a lead on the OMV Peugeot man, who overnights in a lonely third place, some 20 seconds behind Solberg's Impreza.

With six of the 17 stages run, Stohl is over a minute clear of arguably the surprise package of leg one after Jari-Matti Latvala made the most of getting his hands on an '06 specification Ford Focus to lie fourth overnight. The young Finn started the day cautiously in the Stobart VK backed car but was in the top eight throughout the six stages, his only drama coming on SS4 when he damaged the front of the car on a water splash.

"I'm very surprised, I didn't expect this result after the first day,” he admitted. “There are still two difficult days to go, but I will do my best."

Latvala is 20 seconds clear of the battle for fifth place being fought between Kronos Racing team-mates Dani Sordo and Xavier Pons. Sordo, tackling the event in a WRC car for the first time, was on the back foot from the opening stage when he spun and lost over 30 seconds, although he would bounce back with a run of top ten times to eventually overhaul Pons on the final stage of the day – the Spaniard having had problems on both runs through Resolfen with an off on SS2 and a puncture on SS5.

Behind the squabbling Citroen duo, the opening leg was disappointing for the second Subaru of Chris Atkinson as the Australian struggled to find the confidence in his Impreza to match the pace of his team-mate. However it still looked like he would be ahead of the two Spaniards ahead and fighting with Latvala for position before an electrical problem on the final stage of the day saw him drop over a minute and fall back to seventh.

“It's been a difficult day, we've been struggling to find a good set-up and haven't had enough confidence in the car to be able to push flat-out,” Atkinson admitted. “I thought we were going to be able to finish the day in fourth place but then what looks like an electrical problem cost us about a minute and ruined that plan. Tomorrow we'll wait and see, it's difficult to predict what we'll be able to do, but we'll certainly give it our best shot.”

Behind Atkinson, Mark Higgins – one his first outing of the season in a WRC car – holds the final points scoring position ahead of Francois Duval and Harri Rovanpera, the Skoda pair rounding out the top ten. Jan Kopecky holds eleventh from the second Stobart VK car of Matthew Wilson, the British teenager trying to fight back from the one minute penalty imposed on him for speeding in the service park on the last event in New Zealand.

The opening leg didn't pass without drama for some of the WRC runners, although Hirvonen was the only M1 driver to fall foul of the conditions. The first run through Port Talbot saw the Finn hit a rock on the penultimate corner, although he still posted the second fastest time behind Gronholm. Hirvonen then repeated the feat in the next two stages, despite the handling of his car having been affected by the incident, but the return to service revealed damage to the roll cage that led to an automatic retirement from the event.

"We went off a little bit at the end of first stage and damaged the rear wheel and the door," he told Crash.net Radio. "The car wasn't so good to drive in the next two stages but when we came to service, 'the boys' [my mechanics] and the FIA had a good look at the car and there was a small dent in the roll cage - and obviously then you are out of the rally. The car isn't safe and that is it.”

Also forced on the opening leg were Red Bull Skoda's Andreas Aigner, who rolled out on SS5, and teenage prodigy Andreas Mikkelsen who went off the road in SS2. It remains to be seen if either can restart on leg two.

The battle for the JWRC win, and the championship title, went through a see-saw battle over the course of the dayas the two-wheel drive brigade struggled with the conditions in the Welsh forests - the majority of the Junior runners suffering at least one puncture during the course of the day.

Kris Meeke suffered just that issue on the opening stage, but then bounced back to dominate the rest of the day with the Citroen man almost two minutes clear of nearest challenger Guy Wilks – who suffered numerous punctures throughout the leg. However, with the standings as they are at the end of the day, it is Wilks who would lift the title by two points from Patrick Sandell, who is fifth overnight.

Of the other three drivers hopeful of lifting the JWRC title, current points leader Urmo Aava went out on SS2 with a steering problem while Suzuki team-mate P-G Andersson – having used 'colourful' language on more than one occasion during the course of the day to describe the conditions faced – failed to surface from the final stage of the day. Josef Beres was also forced to retire from the opening leg.

The action resumes with the first run through Crychan at 08.50 local time on Friday morning.


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