Stobart Crews Show Grit in Sweden
The Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally Team enjoyed highs and lows on the second full day of Rally Sweden.
Having started the morning's 126.34km of competitive stage distance with the Ford Focus RS WRCs of Henning Solberg and Matthew
Wilson in top-ten points-scoring positions, the team were hoping that former world champion Marcus Gronholm
could join them by fighting his way back up the leaderboard after his challenge had been thwarted the previous day by an electrical fault that cost him precious minutes.
The morning's opening loop of four stages started well, with Gronholm demonstrating his ability as he went second-fastest on the 14.23km SS20 Sagen - his favourite WRC stage. The start of the stage had been delayed by around 45 minutes due to the huge turnout of spectators piling in to get a glimpse of the action, but that didn't deter fellow Stobart entrants Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson who enjoyed a relatively trouble-free morning and posted competitive times that kept them in the points.
Experienced Finn Gronholm was clearly finding a good rhythm as he followed his showing on Sagen by going fourth-quickest on the 18.15km SS11 Fredriksberg immediately after it. That meant he was clawing back much of the time he had lost the previous day, but frustratingly his charge was derailed once again when he suffered a puncture on the opening stage of the second loop, SS13 Vargasen. Having changed the tyre Gronholm and co-driver Timo Rautiainen got going again, but had lost another hefty chunk of time that effectively ended their chances of a comeback.
However, with much of the ice and snow scraped from the stages in the first pass tyre wear became a major factor as the day progressed. Tactics came into play and crews who had put on fresh Pirelli SottoZero studded rubber before SS14 Sagen benefited. That included Stobart's Marcus Gronholm
, who claimed a stunning stage win on his favoured test by one second from BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver Mikko Hirvonen. Team-mate Matthew Wilson had followed suit and went sixth-fastest, widening the gap between himself and Mads Ostberg behind him in eighth to over 20seconds. Henning Solberg opted not to change his tyres prior to the stage and it cost him, with the Norwegian only managing 13th-fastest through the test.
SS15 Fredriksberg continued to shake things up as crews chewed through their snow tyres on the exposed gravel surface. Stobart's Solberg and Wilson managed to pick their way cautiously through the stage eighth and tenth-fastest, but team-mate Gronholm was less lucky. He overshot a junction and hit a snow bank, ripping off his Ford Focus RS WRC's light pod and pushing a lot of snow into the air intakes. He managed to complete the stage but had to drive carefully to avoid any further damage.
A trouble-free run through the 1.87km SS16 Hagfors Sprint saw Henning Solberg finish the day sixth overall, Matthew Wilson seventh, and Marcus Gronholm
in 29th. The other Stobart-registered car in the field driven by Mattias Therman enjoyed a solid outing, and the Finn gained experience on his way to finishing 24th overall after the final stage of the day.
The final day of Rally Sweden on Sunday will see crews cover 101.05km of stage distance over five tests, the shortest day of the event. The majority of the route has been used in previous editions of Rally Sweden, and crews who have been over it before will be hoping to take advantage of familiar territory to take a strong finish from the first World Rally Championship round of the year.
Other rally news
A good day for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team saw Mikko Hirvonen extend his lead over Sebastien Loeb
to just over 16seconds. The Finn seemed to cope better in the afternoon's difficult road surface conditions than the reigning champion, and pressed home his bid to secure a win in the first round of the year. The Ford manufacturer team was also delighted to see Jari-Matti Latvala show some blistering pace, not only snatching two stage wins but also moving ahead of Dani Sordo in the overall standings to claim third place going into the final day.
Former Formula One world champion Kimi Raikkonnen began to show flashes that he was adapting quickly to life at the elite level of rallying. On the penultimate stage of the day he went sixth-fastest, his best stage time in his fledgling WRC career so far.
Crews from the new S-WRC class dominated the final stage of the day, the 1.87km Hagfors Sprint, with Ford Fiesta S2000s taking a superb one-two in the hands of Martin Prokop and Bernardo Sousa. Two other Fiesta S2000s finished in the top ten, driven by Janne Tuohino and Andreas Mikkelsen.
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Marcus Gronholm
"Of course it was fantastic to win the stage because that was our target. It has been difficult with a lot of other big problems though. Sometimes our speed was very good which was ok. I was driving very hard in the afternoon, but maybe too hard. By the end we had no studs left on our tyres and it was impossible to get a good time. We will try again tomorrow."
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
"We had a nice morning and everything felt very good about the car so we could go quite fast. In the afternoon it was difficult because maybe we made the wrong choice on tyres. It might not have been the correct decision to change when we did, but we had to try something different to see if there was an advantage. I did not have one stud left by the end but I did my best. At least there was no problem with the car and we can try to go as fast as possible tomorrow."
Stobart M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
"It was good to take back the place from Mads [Ostberg]. We changed the car at lunchtime and it's been a completely different machine altogether this afternoon. It gave me so much more confidence after that. I think we did the best we could with the tyre situation in the afternoon. It wasn't an easy drive but everyone was having the same problems with losing studs on the gravel. It would have been easy to make a stupid mistake and lose time, but we just drove to get through it and it's been a pretty good day."
Stobart M-Sport Ford Team Principal Malcolm Wilson said:
"I have been very pleased with Matthew's performance this afternoon, he's set some very good times. He was one of the few drivers who managed his tyre allocation well and he was rewarded with moving up another place on the leaderboard. Henning also had a good day but Marcus had a lot of problems. It's good to see two of our Ford Focus RS WRCs in the top seven."