Leg 1 - Solberg Tailed by two 307WRCars

Leg 1 - Solberg Tailed by two 307WRCarsFrom General Article [ 16/04/2004 ].
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Harri Rovanpera lead going into the final two Super Special Stage runs, however, dropping time in his close battle with Petter see Petter lead at days end. Petter, after claiming the overnight lead on the Super Special Stage lost it to Marcus Gronholm on the third stage today. However, Marcus was to roll one stage later - dropping around half a minute to third and close competition with Markko Martin (4th). The other Peugeot driven by Rovanpera was well on the pace and Solberg's main challenge for the remainder of the day. Loeb, Duval, Sainz and Mikko round out the top 8. Major retirements after the two Lancers include Henning Solberg who left the road in his Bozian 206.

New Zealand's biggest annual sporting event got off to an electrifying start at the super special stage at Manukau City, 20 minutes south of Auckland. Thousands of spectators flocked to the floodlit stage and were thrilled by head-to-head sideways action as the World's leading drivers put state-of-the-art cars through their paces on the tricky figure of eight course that included a jump and water splash. Markko Martin was fastest, with Marcus Gronholm second and Francois Duval third. Fastest Time: Martin (Ford) 1:24.5

A second run through the crowd-pleasing super special brought more close racing from the leading WRC drivers. Competing in his Impreza WRC2004, Petter Solberg was fastest with Marcus Gronholm second. Mikko Hirvonen, Harri Rovanpera and Markko Martin all stopped the clock at the same time to tie third. SS2 brought bitter disappointment for the Mitsubishi team. Both of their Lancer WRC04 entries developed an identical electrical problem that prevented their engines starting before the stage. Unable to make it to the line, drivers Gilles Panizzi and Kristian Sohlberg retired from the rally. Fastest Time: Solberg (Subaru) 1:22.4

Warm and sunny conditions greeted the remaining WRC drivers at the start of the first 'proper' test of the event, the 18.90km SS3 at Wairere. Running at the head of the field, Citroen's Sebastien Loeb and Ford's Markko Martin commented that they were struggling to find grip on the loose and slippery road surface and lost 17 seconds and 10.5 seconds respectively to the leading drivers. Capitalising on lower running positions and cleaner roads, Subaru's Petter Solberg and Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm set exactly the same time to tie for the stage win 5.9 seconds ahead of the rest of the field. Petter's time kept him in the overall lead of the rally, even though he had an uncomfortable stage when fumes from a hot spare tyre irritated his eyes. The problem was caused when the rear silencer of his car's exhaust system was bumped closer than normal to the boot floor and the spare wheel well. Finnish gravel expert, Harri Rovanpera was third fastest, with Peugeot privateer Daniel Carlsson fourth. After the finish, cars moved directly to the start of SS4. Fastest Time: Solberg (Subaru) & Gronholm (Peugeot) 10:42.5

SS4 1051hrs Cassidy - as air temperatures rose to 20°C, Solberg was again fastest in his Impreza WRC2004 to notch up his third consecutive stage win. Rovanpera was second fastest and Martin, competing in the new Ford Focus WRC04, third. Current WRC leader Loeb continued to be impeded by his first-on-the-road running position and was seventh fastest, losing a further 12.4 seconds to Solberg. Not a good start to the event for Peugeot driver, and Petter's brother, Henning Solberg. Competing in a Bozian prepared 206, the Norwegian went off the road mid test and was unable to continue. After the finish, crews moved directly to the start of SS5. Fastest Time: Solberg (Subaru) 9:13.7

2003 World Champion co-driver Phil Mills described the test from Bull (SS5) as a classic New Zealand stage, ‘very flowing, very cambered and very fast.’ While the dry and loose surface continued to cause headaches for the front-runners, it wasn't all good news for those cars further down the order. Many of the faster corners became slippery as leading competitors who were taking aggressive cuts on the corners flicked mud from the soft verge onto the road. This time Gronholm was quickest, while another storming run from Solberg saw the Norwegian finish second. Adopting a cautious approach to the opening stages, and adjusting his driving technique to suit the demanding and heavily cambered road conditions, Mikko Hirvonen was eighth fastest. Sainz was ninth, commenting that his car felt nervous and pedal brake ‘spongy’. There were no retirements and after the finish crews returned to Paparoa for the second service of the day. Fastest Time: Gronholm (Peugeot) 19:55.6

There were nervous moments for the Peugeot team on the second run through the Wairere test (SS6), when Marcus Gronholm rolled his 307 just meters from the finish. Charging through test (he had been fastest at the previous split time), the three-times winner of the event overshot a right-hand corner, went into a bank and rolled. Despite sustaining visible front-right damage to his Peugeot, the Finn was able to continue, but lost 39.2 seconds and the overall lead. His team-mate Rovanpera took the stage win, while Solberg was second, to retake first overall, and Duval third. Mikko Hirvonen was eighth fastest, despite running wide on a corner and bouncing his Impreza across a ditch. Fortunately the car landed back on the road and the young Finn, who was contesting his second WRC New Zealand event, was able to continue. After the finish, crews completed the 12.43km road section to the start of SS7. Fastest Time: Rovanpera (Peugeot) 10:27.2

A repeat of SS4 and SS5, the Cassidy and Bull stages were combined for SS7 and named in memory of the New Zealand rally driver Possum Bourne, who died last year. Recording an average speed of 100kph, Rovanpera was fastest, while his team-mate Gronholm, who was clearly relishing the flowing roads on which he won in 2003, was second fastest. Loeb was third. Commenting that his tyres were too soft, Ford driver Martin struggled to find sufficient grip in his Focus though the final 20km and posted the sixth fastest time. The Estonian had had a sliver of glass removed from his eye by the team doctor the previous evening following an incident at the Super Special, but asserted it was not causing him any discomfort. After the finish, crews returned to Paparoa for a scheduled service. Fastest Time: Rovanpera (Peugeot) 28:55.9

SS8 and SS9 were two more runs through the Manukau City Super Special Stage. Solberg was fastest through the stage on the first run, while rally leader Harri Rovanpera dropped 4.4s on the first run losing his lead to Petter. The second run saw Petter finish second to Ford's Francios Duval while Rovanpera was only 1.6s off Petter's time this run.

Unofficial Leg 1 Positions:

1 SOLBERG/MILLS 555 Subaru World Rally Team 01:25:09.5
2 ROVANPERA/PIETILAINEN Marlboro Peugeot Total +00:05.0
3 GRONHOLM/RAUTIAINEN Marlboro Peugeot Total +00:31.0
4 MARTIN/PARK Ford Motor Co. Ltd +00:31.2
5 LOEB/ELENA Citroën Total +00:48.0
6 DUVAL/PREVOT Ford Motor Co. Ltd +00:53.5
7 SAINZ/MARTI Citroën Total +01:03.1
8 HIRVONEN/LEHTINEN 555 Subaru World rally team +01:24.8
9 CARLSSON/ANDERSSON Bozian Racing +01:51.3
10 WARMBOLD/PRICE Ford Motor co. ltd +05:10.1