Ford meat in PSA sandwitch

Ford meat in PSA sandwitchFrom Chris Biewer [ 17/10/2003 ].
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Indeed, from a manufacturer championship point of view, Peugeot’s situation could hardly be worse. The good news is that Marcus Grönholm is only 5.3s off the lead. The attention in the championship battle is clearly between Peugeot and Citroen. It seems that the battles concentrate between Marcus Grönholm vs Sébastien Loeb and Richard Burns vs Carlos Sainz. In both these cases Peugeot is very close indeed behind Citroen. But not only are the gaps extremely slim, in both cases a Ford has become the meat in the PSA sandwich. From a Peugeot point of view, it wouldn’t matter to have the Fords ahead of Citroen, but as it is now, Ford could have a major impact on the makes championship battle between Peugeot and Citroen.

This rally has after leg1 turned out to be mega interesting. In fact the most promising stage times came from the Ford duo Markko Märtin and Francois Duval, but neither of them could stop Citroen’s Sébastien Loeb to take the lead of the rally, while the best Peugeot is down in 3rd place. But this sounds like much more than there really is in it. Loeb’s lead over Marcus Grönholm is only 5.3s after 6 stages and nearly 100km. This is nothing! Despite there being a Ford in between as well, you can say from this that Citroen and Peugeot are very much on the same pace. And the situation slightly further back is quite similar. From 4th to 6th place the Citroen-Ford-Peugeot order repeats itself. Ford man Märtin has been fast and quite likely would be leading the rally, had it not been for a big spin within sight of the finish line of SS4. Now Peugeot’s Richard Burns is just 1s behind Märtin. But with Märtin’s spin in mind and the fact that Richard himself is less than 20s off the lead, it shows how quickly everything could turn around again. To spice things up, forecast for tomorrow is rain.

Peugeot Sport Boss Corado Provera’s analysis on matters is very much on similar lines: “We had a much better 1st leg as two weeks ago at the Rally San Remo. After a quarter of the rally Ford is a little faster. The Peugeot 206 WRC and the Citroen Xsara are equal. This means that since the last event we have been working into the right direction. Marcus Grönholm has today done a perfect job and is close to the lead. Richard Burns did more than just defend his position. Gilles Panizzi is not happy. We have checked his car but didn’t find any problems.”

Indeed, Marcus Grönholm has done very well, the Finn turns into Peugeot’s tarmac expert it seems. Markko Märtin does look like the fastest man on the stages, but what matters more for Peugeot at this moment is that Marcus keeps in touch with Sébastien Loeb. This is quite amazing. The Tour de Corse is not just an asphalt event, it is quite likely the most specialised event in the calendar. That is why specialists always were good for a change to the norm on this event. The Tour de Corse has often been the playground of French experts such as Bernard Darniche, Jean-Luc Thérier, Didier Auriol or in later days Gilles Panizzi. To say that Markku Alen in 1984 was the last Finn to win this rally would be an understatement – Markku Alen is the only Finn to ever win this rally!!!! This kind of makes the Grönholm show today the more amazing!

Marcus Grönholm for the moment is however more concerned about the here and now – and tomorrow: “I think I can go a little bit quicker tomorrow, but not very much: I’m already quite close to the maximum. The pace has been very fast today but I’m happy as we’re in close touch with the leaders. The big question mark now will be the weather: if it rains there could be some dramatic changes.”

Richard Burns’ main worry may be to stay in front of the drivers championship battle. His day has been in quite a nice contrast to his drive in San Remo. But then again, as already stated, the Tour de Corse is quite unique, so you could not simply expect a repeat of what we saw two weeks ago. Richard got off to a brilliant start, 2nd fastest on SS1, faster than the San Remo winner Loeb. After leg1 Richard is still less than 20s behind Loeb, but the battle is so close, that this means 6th place and effectively a provisional loss of the drivers championship lead.

Still, it was far from the worst display we have seen of Richard, who is eager to make this his 11th points finish in 12 rallies so far this year: “We lost a little bit of time on the second loop of stages because of loose gravel on the road, but generally we had no problems. We’ve got a couple of extra things we can try tomorrow, with new anti-roll bar settings, but nothing revolutionary. If we can keep up this pace, I’m happy.”

The disappointment and the surprise of the 1st leg of the 2003 Tour de Corse come from the same corner. Gilles Panizzi was already pale in San Remo, but regained some of his reputation by an inspired tyre choice for the last few stages two weeks ago. But the Tour de Corse seems to go even worse for him. Gilles is outside the top10, expressed himself very unhappy with the works 206 WRC Evo3, but the team could not find anything wrong with the car. To add to insult, current French Championship leader Alex Bengué in his 3 years old (ex-Simon Jean-Joseph) BSA run 206 WRC Evo1 is firmly ahead of Gilles!

Gilles said: “It’s been a very difficult day. I’ve been struggling all the time with a car that feels very aggressive and difficult to control. So far we’ve not found a solution but hopefully we can do something now to make it better.”

There is more to be said about Alexandre Bengué. He is the French Peugeot Cup winner of 2001, but seemed to be in the shadow of two more fellow Peugeot Cup winners, Cedric Robert and from 2002 Bryan Bouffier (another name to take note of!). Nevertheless Alexandre Bengué is competing in the French Open Asphalt Championship, a hugely competitive championship with many 206 WRC, Impreza WRC and the likes taking part. Alexandre is leading that championship and has managed to win the last 4 rounds in succession. And just to underline how high the level in that series is, Alexandre Bengué has shocked the WRC scene today by posting a 4th fastest stage time overall in SS5, beating all the works Peugeots! While Alexandre is currently in 9th overall, we also have Cedric Robert in 15th and Manfred Stohl, back from his Hyundai adventure in the Rolf Schmidt/Peugeot Austria run and owned 206 WRC, in 17th. Both Stohl and Robert had a problem free day and to be fair, they are in older customer spec cars and there have hardly been any retirements – although this makes you scratch your head even more about the Bengué show.