Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen lie second in the Acropolis Rally of Greece tonight after another thrilling day's action over tough gravel mountain roads. The flying Finns fought tooth and nail with Carlos Sainz throughout the second leg of this
eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship and a series of lightning quick times on the afternoon speed tests powered their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car ahead of the Spaniard.
Fellow countrymen Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen maintained their overnight fifth position in a privately-entered Focus RS after eight more demanding gravel special stages, covering 122.72km, south of the rally base in Lamia. Norway's Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud held seventh in another privately- entered Focus RS but crashed out this afternoon.
Competitors tackled two identical loops of four stages, the middle two tests widely regarded as the roughest of the rally. However, the rate of attrition was lower than yesterday's opening leg. Temperatures again soared close to 35į C, ideal for the large crowds, but uncomfortable for the drivers and requiring great reliability from engines, transmissions and suspension.
Gardemeister, lying fourth last night, and Sainz started the day split by 3.7sec but Gardemeister narrowed the gap to 0.8sec on the opening 7.71km Koumaritsi, a new stage to the rally. Sainz was marginally quicker on each of the next three stages and the pair returned to service divided by just 4.8sec. The battle for third became a fight for second when Marcus GrŲnholm hit mechanical trouble this afternoon. Second fastest time on the each of the final three tests allowed the 30-year-old Finn to overhaul Sainz and open a 7.7sec advantage.
"We've had a good battle with Carlos," said Gardemeister. "We wanted to get ahead of him and I knew that if I pushed a little harder I could do that. I drove over a lot of stones but it seems that this rally is suiting me and, especially, the Focus. It seems that you have to take some risks to go fast here. It has been different to yesterday and quite rough in places. I'm happier with today but the stages were nicer to drive yesterday.
"It's going to be a difficult day tomorrow on roads that we don't know but the stages are new for everyone. We'll do our best to keep Carlos behind. I have good confidence and we will need to push to get good times," he added.
Hirvonen set a cautious pace this morning and Harri Rovanperš closed to within 3.3sec. But he speeded up in the afternoon and set top six times on all four stages in the second loop to fend off Rovanperš's challenge. Hirvonen almost overhauled the stricken GrŲnholm but ended the leg 6.2sec behind and 26.9sec clear of his fellow countryman. He had a gearchange problem which, fortunately, only appeared on the final corner of the last stage of the morning loop but that was quickly cured in service.
"We had a steady drive this morning," he said. "We decided to save the car and drove round all the stones. We needed to be a little quicker this afternoon and take some time out of Rovanperš and that's what we did. Everything has gone to plan. We had a puncture this afternoon but Michelin's mousse worked well and on the last stage we twice hit a stone really badly and were lucky to get away with it. The car felt strange afterwards but it didn't slow us."
BP-Ford team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Moěnż re-started this morning in their similar Focus RS under the SupeRally regulations after retiring yesterday. However, the Czech duo suffered an electrical problem en route to the first stage and they were sidelined for a second day. They will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules, having incurred penalties that have dropped them to 56th.
Solberg found a consistent pace over the opening three stages, setting a sixth fastest time to retain his overnight seventh. However, the Norwegian went off the road 5km after the start of the 14.59km Amfissa test, plunging down a bank and into a tree. The crew were unhurt. The Focus suffered severe damage to the rear and the roll cage was also damaged which will prevent him from restarting tomorrow.
"It was completely my fault," admitted Solberg. "It happened at a left corner which was tighter than I had in my pace notes. It's my first time on the rally and it was a wrong note. The car slid off the road and hit a tree. The impact spun the car right round and then it dropped down a bank to end up lying against some more trees."
The final leg comprises just four stages covering 98.79km. The opening two are based north-west of Lamia in the Timphristos mountains before returning to the Mount Iti area for the final two tests. Three of the four stages are new to the rally and the penultimate test is the longest of the event at 34.80km. Drivers leave Lamia at 07.00 and return for the finish ceremony at 14.25.
Press release Ford World Rally Team