Gardemeister Fifth Leg 2

Gardemeister Fifth Leg 2From Ford Press [ 09/04/2005 ].
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BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen ended today's second leg of the Rally New Zealand in fifth place after a tremendous three-car battle through the lush North Island countryside. The Finns fought for every tenth of a second in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, aided by Michelin's newly developed tyres which were again perfectly suited to the conditions in the warm afternoon temperatures.

Their clash with Markko Märtin and Chris Atkinson provided spectacular entertainment on the fast and flowing gravel tracks close to the Northland town of Paparoa, 150km north of Auckland. The trio were covered by just six-tenths of a second midway through the leg, before Gardemeister and Honkanen pulled away during the afternoon speed tests to cement fifth place.

After overnight rain, conditions remained dry but humid for most of the day. However, rain in the late afternoon made the surface damp at the Manukau special stages on the edge of Auckland, where this evening large crowds watched two cars at a time race side-by-side around a floodlit purpose-built track.

Drivers tackled eight speed tests in total, covering 139.49km, including two passes over the 31.73km Bull stage, the longest of this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Thirty-year-old Gardemeister started the day in sixth in his Castrol-branded Focus RS. He climbed into fifth on the opening Wairere stage as the battle began in earnest. The trio traded tenths of a second on the next two stages to return to the Paparoa service park covered by just 0.6sec, with Gardemeister in sixth, just 0.1sec behind Märtin.

"We enjoyed a better morning than yesterday," he said. "All the stages were new to me. I've driven the first two in the opposite direction, but none of them this way around. The opening stage was quite damp, in fact there was almost mud in places. The others were quite dry but there was a lot of loose gravel on the road towards the end of stage 11 and it was slippery. We pushed hard on all three tests and I lost a little time when I slid wide at a corner on the opening stage. It was very humid and inside the car it felt like I was sitting in a sauna."

"We softened the anti-roll bar setting this morning but made it harder again for the afternoon tests," added Gardemeister, who was relishing the close competition. "It was good for my motivation to be in a battle like that. It makes me push that bit harder."

Gardemeister opted for Michelin's harder compound new construction rubber for the afternoon. As on yesterday's opening leg, the tyres performed superbly. Gardemeister was faster than his rivals on all three stages to move back into fifth. After the two sprint tests at Manukau, he returned to Auckland 9.9sec ahead of Märtin and 36.8sec ahead of Atkinson, who fell away this afternoon.

"We had an excellent day and found good speed," said Gardemeister. "The Focus RS is well-suited to these stages. We had no problems and I enjoyed driving these fantastic roads. Michelin's tyres were perfect this afternoon and made a big difference. But we were lucky when we slid wide on a fast left bend over a crest. The car went into a field and we rejoined the track further along. Tomorrow we'll continue to hard and I'm confident we can keep Markko behind us."

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with his driver's performance. "Toni has driven very well and he has been assisted by Michelin's new rubber. The Focus has run faultlessly and we have not had to change anything for two days now. There are still a lot of kilometres to go and the stages on the west coast can be tricky," he said.

Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr, driving a privately-entered Focus RS, climbed to 13th after putting yesterday's power steering difficulties behind them. Their only trouble today came on stage 12 when an intercom problem meant Warmbold could not hear Orr's pace notes. They swapped helmets for the following stages and communications between co-driver and driver were restored.