Markko has eye on podium spot

Markko has eye on podium spotFrom General Article [ 06/09/2003 ].
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Markko Märtin and Michael Park enjoyed a cleaner run through today's second leg of the Rally Australia to climb to fourth position in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. The Ford BP Rallye Sport duo shrugged aside the frustrations of yesterday's opening leg, during which a series of minor mistakes cost valuable seconds, to overcome four-times world champion Tommi Mäkinen during a daylong battle over slippery gravel tracks east of the Western Australia capital of Perth. As Märtin and Park grew in confidence, without ever matching the form which took their Castrol-branded Focus to a sensational victory on the Rally Finland last month, they began to close on third-placed Richard Burns. They will start the final day of this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship 27.3 seconds behind the Briton, current leader of the series.

Ford BP team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot lie 10th in a similar Focus RS, the Belgian pairing lying just 5.2 seconds ahead of Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, behind the wheel of a 2002-specification Focus RS, run by M-Sport.

Competitors tackled two groups of four speed tests before returning to Perth for two final runs over the spectacular super special stage at Gloucester Park trotting track, which began the action on Thursday night - a total of 124.00km. Damp roads this morning became drier as intermittent sunshine broke through the clouds but drivers still reported many slippery patches in the shaded areas.

Märtin lost a few seconds on the opening Beraking East stage when he stalled the engine of his Focus RS on the startline. However, he recovered well to swap times with Mäkinen throughout the morning tests, reducing the overnight deficit from 4.8 seconds to 3.6 seconds. The 27-year-old Estonian upped the pace further in the afternoon, aided by softer compound Michelin tyres, and a trio of third fastest times and one fourth quickest accounted for Mäkinen and closed the gap to Burns.

He then thrilled a capacity 12,000 crowd at Gloucester Park by winning the two super special stages, defeating Carlos Sainz in both head-to-head races over the purpose-built floodlit track to take his total of fastest times for the rally to three.

"It's been a much better day than yesterday, although I know I can be faster than this," said Märtin. "I'm still struggling to find any consistency and rhythm. Sometimes it seems to work and other times it doesn't. I've been pushing to the limit today and it's testing my nerves. My pace notes are not bad on the fast sections but on the twistier sections they're far too slow. I don't want to have to rely on memory because there's no margin for error here as the trees are so close to the edge of the road. The Focus is great, it's me that's the problem. It just shows that even if the car is fantastic, the driver has to be on form as well."

Duval and Prévot made good progress this morning to move ahead of Hirvonen on the opening stage and then pass Didier Auriol on the next to take 10th position. The two Focus RS drivers battled hard for the final place on the leaderboard, Duval extending his advantage initially before the 23-year-old Finn fought back during the afternoon.

"We've had no problems with the car and it was a better day than yesterday," said the 22-year-old Belgian driver. "My driving style has improved and my pace notes are better, although I've changed the notes throughout the day. I don't have enough confidence in the long, fast corners. I can't decide when to brake and I'm finding it hard to judge what gear I should be in. Tomorrow won't be an easy day but we'll continue with the same rhythm."

Hirvonen adopted a cautious policy over the morning stages, which he found more difficult than yesterday's tests. "They were much narrower and more technical and also quite slippery," he said. "I was quicker this afternoon. I had some mistakes in my pace notes this morning. Sometimes they were too slow but I've not missed any junctions today which is good. Tomorrow's stages are faster and wider and I'm looking forward to them because I prefer those kind of tests."

Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with another troublefree day for the Focus RS cars. "Tomorrow's stages will be harder on the cars but so far they've run faultlessly. I can see Markko isn't happy with his performance but he's had more confidence today and driven better," he said.