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Gronholm freezes out rivals to lead Swedish Rally
Sweden Rally 2006: Ford World Rally Team - Leg 1
Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lead the Swedish Rally after today's ice-bound opening leg in the frozen forests of Värmland. The Finns led from the very first kilometre in the same Ford Focus
RS World Rally Car with which they won the Rallye Monte Carlo two weeks ago. They hold a 10.2 second advantage tonight over Sebastien Loeb.
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen were equally impressive in a similar Focus RS and held third throughout the day. However, an overheating engine forced them to stop on the penultimate speed test. It is not yet known whether they will be able to restart tomorrow under SupeRally regulations.

Fireworks lit up last night's start ceremony in Karlstad but the action began in earnest this morning from the Hagfors service park, 90km north. Drivers tackled six speed tests covering 131.04km, all but the end-of-day sprint around the town's ski stadium located in the barren countryside nearby. Snow leading up to this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship was followed by freezing temperatures to provide perfect conditions for the only pure winter event of the season. Indeed, temperatures plunged to a shivering -13˚C as Grönholm left for the day's first special stage.

The 37-year-old Finn opted for long studs in BFGoodrich's skinny winter tyres to bite into the ice and provide maximum traction. It proved the perfect option as he raced to fastest time on the first two tests in the Focus RS. "They tyres looked good after the opening stage so we didn't swap them around," he said. "And anyway it was too cold to be changing tyres! There is no heating in the car and on the road sections we were absolutely frozen."

Despite a spin early on the next test, Grönholm maintained his lead and set second fastest time on each of the final three tests. He and Loeb were so evenly matched that no more than 0.8sec covered the trio on any of the final three stages.

"I made a small mistake at the first junction and nearly went off the road. I was going too quickly and almost got stuck in a snowbank. I had to put the car into first gear and use full throttle to get out. I thought there would be more snow on the roads being first car to start the stages, but there wasn't so much and there was quite a clean line. There are more snowbanks by the edge of the road this year and so the corners seem tighter than in 2005 when there wasn't much snow," he added.

"We've pushed really hard all day. It's motivating to have such a big fight with Loeb, although I would be happier with a larger gap. The tyres were incredible on the long 40km stage tonight. We lost no studs and the grip remained perfect all the way. I've made a few small mistakes in the snowbanks but nothing too serious. It will be a big battle tomorrow and we will see if I can find any more speed," added Grönholm.

Hirvonen was third on the opening two stages and maintained his position on the second pass through the tests. "I lost my confidence a little on the second stage and made a few mistakes," he admitted. "Conditions were tricky on the repeat run because there was a lot of snow on the road from the passage of the cars behind us the first time through. The ruts were quite deep. As a result I was unsure about the traction and grip in the braking areas. I leaned the car on the snowbanks quite often, but that is part of the driving technique here."

However, the 25-year-old Finn stopped just 2km from the end of the 39.95km Vargåsen stage, the longest of the rally. "It was such a shame because that was a great stage and I was going so well," he said. "I entered a corner and the alternator warning light came on and the water temperature went up. I radioed the team and they told me to stop immediately so as not to damage the engine." It is believed the overheating was caused when the alternator drive belt failed.

Kosti Katajamäki and Timo Alane are 11th in a 2005-specification Focus RS run by the Stobart VK M-Sport team. Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Michael Orr are 16th in a similar car, one place behind privately-entered Norwegians Thomas Schie and Göran Bergsten in a 2003 Focus RS.

The second leg is again based around the Hagfors service park. After re-starting at 07.10, competitors face seven more stages covering 127.80km. Two of the tests are repeated and the final two are identical to today, comprising the long 39.95km Vargåsen and the short sprint at Hagfors ski stadium. The leg ends at 18.38.
Press release Ford World Rally Team

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