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Gronholm in a class apart in NZ.

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.



Related Pictures

Click on relevant pic to enlarge
Rally New Zealand, 17 - 19 Novembre 2006 Marcus gronholm (fin) -Timo rautiainen (fin)  BP ford focus wrc
Marcus Gronholm - BP Ford [Pic credit: Ford/worldrallypics.com]
Rally New Zealand, 17 - 19 Novembre 2006 Mikko Hirvonen (fin) - Jarmo Lehtinen (fin) BP ford focus wrc
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Pontus Tidemand (SWE) Emile Axelsson (SWE), Ford Fiesta R5, WRC2 winners
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Bernardo Sousa, Hugo Magalhaes, (Ford Fiesta RRC, #43)
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Martin Prokop, Michal Ernst (Ford Fiesta RS WRC, #21 Jipocar Czech National Team)
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