From Ford Press [ 24/03/2006 ].
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BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen dominated much of today's opening leg of the Rally de España in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. The Finns blitzed the opposition on this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship to win the opening three speed tests and build a significant lead before technical problems intervened late this afternoon to drop them to 10th.
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen further emphasised the speed of the Focus RS WRC on dry asphalt by holding third for the opening half of the day. However, an identical turbo-related problem hampered their challenge over the final two special stages and they slipped down the order to 14th.
The roads in the hills above the Costa Daurada coastline, south-west of Barcelona, provided the first opportunity for the new Focus RS WRC to sample hot, dry asphalt. Air temperatures climbed to 25¢ªC as the spring sunshine provided glorious spectating weather for the fans who packed into the six special stages, covering 137.25km.
Grönholm was quickest on the opening three stages to open a 11.1sec lead over French asphalt expert Sebastien Loeb. Although Loeb clawed back nearly two seconds on the fourth test, Grönholm retained a healthy lead until a broken turbo wastegate struck the BP Ultimate and Castrol branded Focus RS early in the penultimate stage. He was unable to make repairs before the last stage and dropped more than 2min 40sec to his rival.
"I would have been disappointed if I had been far away from Sebastien after such good asphalt testing recently," said 38-year-old Grönholm. "My pace notes were not fantastic here last year and this morning I was changing them to make them work with the Focus. I could enter corners faster than previously and I took no risks in building a lead.
"On the penultimate stage I lost power 7km after the start due to a turbo problem, and it's hard to drive with no boost. It slowly got worse and there was nothing I could do nothing to fix it after the stage because it is located right at the back of the engine and it was far too hot to get anywhere near. I'm disappointed, of course, but also surprised because I had no problem like this in testing. Everything was going so well and for the first time ever I was beating Sebastien on asphalt. I need to fight back tomorrow," he added.
Hirvonen was never outside the top four times as he settled into a three-way battle with Spaniards Dani Sordo and Xavi Pons for third place. After holding third until midway through the leg, he was just 2.3sec behind Sordo when a broken turbo wastegate also deprived his Focus RS of power over the final two stages. He dropped almost 4min 30sec and a new wastegate was fitted this evening.
"I thought a podium was possible," he said. "I was cautious in the opening stage and probably lost some time as a result but all was going well until about 4km after the start of stage five. The boost dropped over the next 4km and then there was nothing. In all our testing the car has been so reliable but mechanical problems happen with new cars and we must work to resolve this. Despite the troubles, I'm pleased with the speed of the Focus on asphalt."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was disappointed but hugely encouraged by the asphalt pace of the new Focus. "We have taken so many positives from the performance of the cars this morning, the biggest of which was beating Loeb, and that's a huge confidence boost for the team. We calculate that Marcus could recover to fourth if he can reproduce this morning's speed over the rest of the rally," he said.
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Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) had a small brake problem on the opening stage but made repairs himself before the second stage. He inherited the lead when Grönholm hit trouble and has a 27.3sec lead over team-mate Dani Sordo, who overcame understeering problems this morning. Xavi Pons (Citroen) lies third, despite stalling at the start of the second stage and minor brake problems. Petter Solberg (Subaru) holds fourth with Alex Bengue (Peugeot) and Jan Kopecky (Skoda) rounding off the top six. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) lost time on stage four after sliding on gravel and hitting his car's rear-left, damaging the handling. Gilles Panizzi (Skoda) dropped a minute this morning with incorrect suspension settings. He lost a further two minutes when he had to help push Jari-Matti Latvala's (Ford) car off stage four, the Finn having crashed, leaving his car blocking the route.
The second leg covers two identical loops of three stages north and west of Salou. The first test of each loop is a repeat of today's final stage, but used in the opposite direction, while the second is the longest of the rally at 28.33km. Drivers leave Salou at 07.00 and return for the final overnight halt at 18.03 after 111.36km of competition.