Turkey : Ford World Rally Team - Leg 1
Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen mastered treacherous conditions to lead the Rally of Turkey after today's weather-hit opening leg. The Finns hold a 26.1sec advantage in their Ford Focus RS World Rally
Car following a day in which more than half the competitive distance was cancelled, as torrential rain turned the mountain gravel tracks in the south of the country into a muddy mess.
Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie third. Their similar BP Ultimate and Castrol-branded Focus RS World Rally Car is involved in a battle with the Solberg brothers. The Finns are 26.1sec behind Petter and just 0.7sec ahead of Henning.
Drivers were due to tackle nine speed tests covering 152.94km, the bulk high in the Toros mountains, with a spectacular super special stage ending the action on the edge of Antalya. However, three days of torrential rain transformed the dry roads into swamps. The service park in Kemer was flooded while organisers cancelled the first two speed tests for safety reasons as the medical helicopter could not land due to fog and rain. Continued bad weather led to the scrapping of a third stage and half of another due to excessive mud, leaving just 70.71km of competition.
It all seemed very appropriate in a country reputed to be the final resting place of Noah's Ark while the superstitious pointed out that today is Friday the 13th and this is the 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship!
Grönholm powered into an amazing 24.9sec lead in just 9.90km of Kumluca, the only stage to beat the weather this morning. He was fastest over both tests during the second loop to extend his advantage to 37.0sec. The sunshine finally broke through this afternoon and the roads started to dry remarkably quickly as closest rival Petter Solberg fought back to reduce the deficit.
"It was incredibly difficult this morning," said 38-year-old Grönholm, who chose BF Goodrich's soft compound tyres all day, with extra cuts carved into the rubber to combat the mud. "It was so muddy, with surprises everywhere, and it was impossible to attack in those conditions because I could have slid off the road in first gear in that weather. It was just a question of survival. I was surprised how quickly it dried, to the point that the driving line was dry in places.
"I lost time this afternoon but that was through running first on the road. I cleared the drying mud away from the surface and that left drier conditions for those behind. I haven't driven as aggressively as I would if I was fighting with Sebastien Loeb
but I'm not on my own at the front. Petter has been driving quickly and I will have to push hard tomorrow and keep a close watch on his split times. I'm happy to be ahead but the gap is not big enough to relax," he added.
Team-mate Hirvonen made a cautious start and was sixth after the opening test. "It was like driving on thin ice and the grip changed all the time so I had no idea which parts would be slippery," he said. He climbed to third this afternoon and relished the battle with the Solberg brothers. "I think I can push Petter tomorrow. I'm really enjoying battling with other drivers because on the last few rallies I've not had to fight with anyone. I've had to raise my speed and I'm enjoying that. I'm a little frustrated to lose time this morning when I started too steadily but it was just so muddy.
"The roads dried so quickly it was unbelievable. It was full sunshine in the mountains this afternoon and the stages were much easier than this morning. The grip was more consistent. I'm sure there will be big ruts during the second pass over stages tomorrow because the surface is so soft but I have a strong car," added Hirvonen.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said: "I'm delighted with the results bearing in mind the conditions the drivers have encountered, especially with Marcus being first on the road and not knowing what was lying around the corner. Tomorrow will be harder on the cars but I'm confident we can maintain our strong performance."
The second leg returns to the Toros mountains. After leaving Kemer at 08.00, drivers face two identical loops of two stages before a different loop in the afternoon which ends with a repeat of the super special stage in Antalya. They tackle seven stages in total, covering 147.11km, before returning to Kemer for the final overnight halt at 21.16.
Ford World Rally Team