Ford's Finns in top 6

Ford's Finns in top 6From Ford Press [ 05/08/2005 ].
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BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen each hold top six positions after today's pulsating opening leg of the Rally Finland. Gardemeister lies fourth in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, less than five seconds away from a podium place, while Hirvonen is sixth in a similar car after a day of remarkable action in which average speeds exceeded 125kph.

This 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship is the fastest of the season. It is affectionately known as the 'Finnish Grand Prix' as cars spend much of the time in sixth gear at more than 200kph on the sweeping gravel roller-coaster roads close to the rally base in Jyväskylä. Rain during last night's short opening speed test on the edge of the town made this morning's special stages wet and slippery. Overcast skies threatened more rain, but the sun broke through and the roads dried as the day went on. Drivers faced nine stages covering 144.27km.

This morning both Gardemeister and Hirvonen opted for a soft compound version of the new HV evolution of Michelin's Z BTO tyre, designed specifically to ensure stability and precision on the fast tests. Thirty-year-old Gardemeister quickly became embroiled in a close battle with Markko Märtin. The Finn's Castrol-branded Focus RS traded seconds with the Estonian all day, eventually finishing 4.5sec behind. Petter Solberg's late afternoon problems dropped him behind the duo and he will restart tomorrow only 0.1sec behind Gardemeister.

"It was an odd day," said Gardemeister. "My position is good but the gap between myself and the leader is more than I wanted or expected. The tyres were good but the car slid too much this morning and I don't know why. There were a lot of loose stones on the surface and the roads were wet rather than damp. I stopped sliding this afternoon on the drier stages. The car seems better in the dry than in the wet but I don't understand why. I think tomorrow will be a better day because I know the roads well and like them. I will make the ride height lower and see what effect that has."

Fellow countryman Hirvonen was called up to the BP-Ford squad for this event to take advantage of his experience and knowledge of the unique Finnish stages. He did not disappoint and despite a low start position which meant the roads were softer and more difficult, he immediately found a top six pace on his first rally in the latest-specification Focus RS.

"The difference in stage times between the fastest cars and myself isn't large and I feel comfortable at this speed," said 25-year-old Hirvonen, who lives in Jyväskylä. "Some stages were soft and others were slippery, and that's where I dropped time compared with those ahead of me. I drove well in the fast parts but perhaps I wasn't as smooth as I needed to be in the slower sections. We need to find more speed tomorrow to catch the people in front of me and I think I can do that. It has been a good day, tomorrow I need to make it a perfect day."

Roman Kresta and Jan Možný, driving a third BP-Ford-entered Focus RS, endured a hard learning day on their debut in Finland. The Czechs focused on understanding the characteristics of the stages and adopted a risk-free strategy in their Focus RS, but Kresta was amazed at the speeds and the spectacle of the event. "It's unbelievable!" he said. "I spent so much time in sixth gear, it's incredible. I overshot a junction this morning and I was too fast into some corners and as soon as you do that, it's easy to lose confidence. But I enjoyed the morning stages and learned a lot."

He was holding 14th until losing more than 10min 30sec on the second pass through the 33.93km Vellipohja test. "The car just stopped. I spoke to the team engineers and they advised me to change the ignition coils and the car fired up immediately. It didn't feel perfect afterwards but at least we were able to continue," said Kresta, who is 28th.

Norway's Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud are ninth in their privately-entered Focus RS. Solberg did not have a good feeling with the car this morning, but was much happier this afternoon. "It was a day of ups and downs," he said. "But we're on the leaderboard and that is something I can build on tomorrow." Menkerud was one of several co-drivers who hurt his back after a heavy landing near the start of Vellipohja. "Cato was screaming in pain for about 1km and so I didn't have any pace notes," added Solberg. Menkerud took painkillers to enable him to continue and is due to receive intensive physiotherapy tonight.

News from our Rivals

Petter Solberg (Subaru) and Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) briefly led before Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) established himself in top spot. The Finn's only problem came when a heavy landing over a jump near the start of stage five injured co-driver Timo Rautiainen's back. The pain was so intense that Grönholm tackled the rest of the stage and the next driving blind without pace notes. His lead dropped to just 1.8sec, but Rautiainen recovered and Grönholm widened his lead again to 5.8sec. Loeb stalled at the start of stage five and co-driver Daniel Elena also injured his back at the same point as Rautiainen. Solberg rolled on the penultimate stage but lost only 20sec, dropping to fourth and allowing Markko Märtin (Peugeot) into third. Harri Rovanperä (Mitsubishi) struggled all day with gear ratios that were too long while team-mate Gigi Galli retired on the opening stage when he went off the road, ripping the front left wheel from his car. Jani Paasonen (Skoda) lost two minutes in a ditch while trying to get passed Galli's car and then retired after the car's right rear suspension broke when landing after a jump. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) went out after hitting a rock on the inside of a corner and breaking his front left suspension and steering.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg is regarded as the classic day of the season. Run over wide, flowing roads close to Jamsä, it covers 144.76km of competition and includes some of rallying's greatest stages. It includes two passes over the awesome Ouninpohja, a roller-coaster stretch of road full of blind crests and huge jumps and viewed by many as rallying's ultimate test of skill. This year it will be split into two tests for safety reasons. Competitors leave Jyväskylä at 06.00 and return at 20.34.