BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen ended today's second leg of the Monte Carlo Rally in a podium position after a day of attrition in the mountains of southern France.

Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car lies third, and is closing on second-placed Marcus Gronholm, with one leg remaining on this first round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek also enjoyed a successful day in the team's other Focus RS, until they struck problems late this evening. The Czech duo climbed from 10th to seventh as the demanding asphalt roads in the mountains above the C?te d'Azur took a heavy toll on many of the leading drivers. However, a seized gearbox on the liaison section back to Monaco brought their Focus RS to a halt. It will be repaired so that they can continue tomorrow, but the five minute penalty incurred dropped them to 10th.

A cool, but clear morning gave way to another glorious day. Temperatures climbed steadily and this year's rally will go down in the history books as one of the driest and warmest on record. Spectators basked in shirt sleeves in the mountains but the temperatures also fluctuated wildly. At the start of the Pont des Miolans - Les Sausses test it was just -2?C, but just 8km later the thermometer had risen to +11?C!

Earlier accidents forced delays of almost an hour and this evening's final two tests were run in darkness, adding an extra challenge to what was already a tough day.

Gardemeister, lying fifth last night, climbed to fourth on the opening stage and third on the next. He then set about hunting down fellow Finn Gr?nholm, slashing an overnight gap of 28.8sec to just 13.6sec this evening. The 29-year-old posted three third fastest times over the day's five special stages covering 128.48km (one stage was neutralised after an accident). He varied his choice of Michelin's dry weather tyres from soft compound in the cool morning, to hard in the higher midday temperatures and back to medium compound as darkness fell.

"I could have driven faster this morning but I kept a good speed and stayed safe," said Gardemeister, who is making his debut with the BP-Ford team. "I've tried not to think about the battles with Gr?nholm in front and Solberg behind, preferring to drive at my own pace. My confidence has been good but I just don't know the limits yet. Sometimes I've been at maximum speed, but not everywhere, and I need to learn a lot more before I can drive flat out everywhere.

"It has been a good day and I'm becoming more comfortable with the car all the time. I'm learning from my mistakes and the car feels easy to drive. Tomorrow I'll try hard to keep Solberg behind me but it will not be easy. He has a lot more experience of his car than I do of mine," he added.

Kresta climbed the order steadily during the day, but encountered troubles in the darkness of the final stage. The 28-year-old hit a rock, breaking the front left suspension on his Focus RS. He completed the test without losing much time but the damage was such that he had to undertake repairs before starting the 97km journey back to the Monaco service park.

While engineers relayed advice via the team radio, Kresta and Tomanek removed the driveshaft themselves, before replacing the wheel and heading back to Monaco. However, they stopped on the motorway about 20km from service with a seized gearbox. Team director Malcolm Wilson said it was thought the driveshaft, which was flailing after the impact in the stage, had damaged an oil pipe in the gearbox, causing the transmission to seize.

"Everything felt much better this morning," said Kresta, who is being cheered on by a large number of fans who have made the journey from the Czech Republic to support him. "I felt much happier than yesterday and had more confidence. The roads were quite slippery in places. There were constant changes in surface from wet and slippery sections to dry and abrasive asphalt, and that was the most difficult part.

"I'm disappointed to have stopped this evening but unfortunately there was no way we could get back to Monaco. But even with a five minute penalty, I am still 10th. I'm sure the team can replace the gearbox and repair the suspension tonight so everything should be OK to continue in the morning," he added.

 

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