18 November 2006
Gronholm and Ford invincible in NZ?
BP Ford number one driver, Marcus Gronholm further extended his lead on day two in New Zealand on Saturday, despite heavy rainstorms in the morning, which made conditions atrocious.
All three tests this morning were dogged by rain and as a result the stages became increasingly muddy as more and more cars passed through the tests. Visibility was also a problem and in parts of the 18.18 kilometre Port Waikato stage drivers' could see less than 100 metres. Fog also played apart in the following test, the 13.88 kilometre-run through Klondyke. Despite all this though, Gronholm began the day in similar form to Friday, topping the times in stage six, narrowly in front of Kronos Citroen's Xavier Pons. In the next test though he eased off slightly complaining that he had the wrong tyres - he was still second fastest though, and he then completed the morning by posting the third best time in SS8.
Gronholm was back on it in the afternoon though and while it was still cloudy, the rain wasn't quite so bad. The Finn was fastest through Te Akau South, 8.2 seconds up on his team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen. In the final 'proper' test of the day, the rain returned and the ordering was reversed, although Gronholm was second best to Mikko by only 0.3 seconds.
Marcus then finished the day by taking another stage win in the Mystery Creek super special, to take his tally for the day to three stage wins – eight in total on the event from the eleven tests run so far. He will now go into the final leg with a 50 second cushion and poised to take sixth win of the season, something that will take his personal tally of WRC victories to 24.
Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile remains second and although he slipped further back, there is no doubt both BP Ford drivers' are focused on getting to the finish, as a 1-2 result would wrap up the manufacturers' championship for the 'Blue Oval'. Mikko eased off in the morning somewhat when the conditions were tricky and 'only' set the third fastest time in Port Waikato and the fourth best in SS7 and SS8. In the afternoon though, like Gronholm, he felt more at ease, winning SS10 and going second quickest in SS9 and SS11.
Manfred Stohl now rounds out the top three in his OMV-backed Peugeot 307, having got the better of Kronos Citroen's Daniel Sordo this afternoon. Stohl conceded time to Dani this morning and thanks to the wrong tyre choice he saw the gap go up from 2.2 seconds overnight to 12.2 seconds heading into the mid-day service. The pendulum swung the other way in the two Te Akau stages however, with Stohl third and fourth quickest in SS9 and SS10, while Dani could only manage a seventh and fifth best time. The Austrian will therefore take a 16.9 second 'lead' into the final day, when the battle for the final place on the podium will be decided.
Further-down the pack, Xavier Pons continues to run in fifth, having set some very solid times - including two second quickest runs in SS6 and SS8. Unsurprisingly he was happy with his form and had little to complain about, although a collision with a rock in the first test in the afternoon slowed his progress somewhat.
Petter Solberg is sixth, although he continued to struggle and while he was fourth in the first test of the day, despite intercom problems, he could only set the tenth and ninth best times in the following two after driveshaft problems slowed the Impreza. In the afternoon, after the problem had been fixed in service D the situation improved and he was fifth and third fastest in the Te Akau tests, in part thanks to a good tyre choice.
Of the rest, Luis-Perez Companc lies seventh, despite having lost lots of time in Wairamarama [SS8] after he hit a rock and broke the rear right wheel. He limped to the finish but the incident cost him over a minute. He moved back up into the points this afternoon though after Chris Atkinson and Henning Solberg both had problems.
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