Japan : Ford World Rally Team - Leg 2
Ford World Rally Team ended today's second leg of Rally Japan on course for a double podium. With one day remaining Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lie second in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after winning five speed tests,
while team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are third in another Focus RS.
Two mistakes in slippery conditions this morning in the remote countryside of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, cost Grönholm his lead. The 38-year-old Finn will start tomorrow's third and final leg of this 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship 25.6sec behind leader Sebastien Loeb
. Hirvonen is 1min 17.5sec behind his team-mate and a comfortable 2min 41.0sec clear of fourth-placed Chris Atkinson.
Drivers tackled two loops of gravel special stages north-east of the host city of Obihiro, in similar territory to yesterday's action. The day ended with two more passes over the spectacular super special stage on the edge of the city, making a total of 128.02km of competition. Blue skies and warm sunshine ensured the roads were drier than the first leg, although there was plenty of mud under the trees in the forests to keep the drivers focused.
Grönholm extended his overnight lead to 13.1sec by winning the opening two tests. However, two errors on the final two stages of the morning cost more than 30sec and dropped him to second.
"It was slippery and I made too many mistakes," he said. "Firstly I hooked a wheel off the road on a right hand bend in a narrow section and spun. I had to reverse and turn around. Then on the next stage I went off at a slow left corner and had to reverse back onto the stage. I don't understand why I made such mistakes."
He recovered to win three stages this afternoon as he clawed back some time from Loeb. "I'm not sure what I can do tomorrow but I will try hard to catch Seb. I need to ensure that I am as close as possible to him just in case he makes a mistake, so there's no way I'm giving up on this just yet," added Grönholm.
Hirvonen retained the same consistently fast pace that was his trademark yesterday. The 26-year-old Finn was second fastest on three stages this morning and third on the other two. He was never outside the top four times this afternoon as he continued to pull away from those behind him.
"When the roads were muddy and slippery then I took it easy because I didn't want to go off, but when conditions were drier it felt really good to let the car go and push harder," he said. "I've learned a lot about my driving here, about how to drive more neatly, and that helped me on the fast sections on the narrow stages.
"It has been an incredibly tiring day, especially with the long road sections. I'm not sure I made the correct tyre choice this afternoon. It wasn't wrong, but I'm not sure it was right either. But I'm pleased with the way the day has gone and this morning I set times that were close to Loeb on some stages. I've had no incidents but if I had tried to drive at the same pace as Marcus and Loeb then I would have, because they are both going very quickly and both have had some escapes," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said the leaders' speed had been hot. "Both Marcus and Seb have set an incredible pace, but Marcus has suffered just as Seb did on the last round in Finland. But we saw what happened here last year when the leader retired on the final day and there are still almost 100km of competition remaining, so it isn't over yet. Mikko has done a solid consolidation job and he will be expected to do the same tomorrow," he said.
The final day is the shortest of the event. Competitors leave Obihiro at 06.00 and head north-west of the city for two groups of stages, split by service back at the Kita Aikoku service park. The rally ends with a fifth and final pass over the super special stage next to service. Drivers tackle six tests in all covering 93.90km.
Press release Ford World Rally Team