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Credit: Les Kolczak / Courtesy of Ford
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are chasing a career-best result after climbing to second during today's second leg of Rally d'Italia Sardegna. The Finns, who finished third in Spain last year, set a strong pace in their Focus RS World Rally Car over the gravel tracks on the sun-kissed Mediterranean island to hold a comfortable advantage over their pursuers.
Hirvonen restarted in third this morning but inherited second following the retirement of team-mates and overnight leaders Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen. The double world champions hit a rock on this morning's second speed test and broke the sump on their Focus RS. Retirement was instant and the damage was such that they will be unable to restart tomorrow under SupeRally.
Today's action was again based south of Olbia, but slightly further to the west. Competitors tackled two identical loops of three special stages, split by service back in the town's port, covering 137.36km. The roads were smoother than yesterday while blistering sunshine sent air temperatures soaring to 26˚C, although a cooling breeze also helped disperse the hanging dust clouds.
Hirvonen had no troubles on the opening two stages but was lucky to escape after hitting a bank near the end of the final test of the loop, losing more than 30 seconds. "I just missed my braking point and touched the bank about 1km from the finish," said 25-year-old Hirvonen. "The car half spun but I couldn't select reverse gear to manoeuvre it around and that was where I dropped the time. The impact damaged the rear right suspension. I made the mistake because I was driving carefully to protect my position. It's easier for the concentration to drive flat out."
The BP-Ford team replaced the suspension and fitted a new differential to restore the Focus RS to full health. Hirvonen then set a second and third fastest time during the afternoon tests to return to Olbia 39.0sec ahead of Dani Sordo in fourth.
"I can't afford to make any more mistakes now. I had no battles today and it's hard to drive like that because I didn't find a rhythm and I lost concentration. I stepped up the pace a little this afternoon and it felt better. I enjoyed the stages more. Maybe driving flat out is a better choice. It's important to finish this rally for me and the team. I remember some sections of tomorrow's stages from when I competed on the Costa Smeralda Rally but it will be tough with no service during the day and I need to be really careful. I've never been in a position to take a podium where I've not had to take risks and push so this is new for me and I need to be sharp," he added.
Grönholm restarted with a 35.4sec lead over Sébastien Loeb and extended that by winning the opening test, his fifth stage win of the rally. However, his victory hopes ended 23.3km after the start of the 31.20km Monte Lerno test, the longest of the rally, when he hit a rock.
"Everything was going fine as we approached a left corner just before a hairpin right," said 38-year-old Grönholm. "I even braked early because I wasn't in a hurry and there was no pressure. But there was a big stone on the line and I hit it under braking. It was a surprise because I didn't see it and I hit it with the middle of the left wheel. There was a big bang as the rock hit the sump and the oil pressure warning light came on. I thought it was a sensor problem initially so I continued for another 800 metres but the engine oil had come out and I had to stop.
"I wasn't pushing hard and there was no panic because I was driving to Loeb's split times and it felt comfortable. I just hit the stone in the wrong place. Another two centimetres further over and everything would have been OK. It's one of the most frustrating retirements I've had," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said: "It's a big disappointment for the team to lose Marcus because everything was going to plan and he was controlling his pace according to Loeb's split times. On the positive side, Mikko is driving well while the performance of the Focus has been the best we have had all season and we have seen that it is good on the rough and difficult stages."
News from Ford's Rivals
Championship leader Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) inherited a comfortable lead following Grönholm's retirement and immediately eased his pace to protect his advantage. However, he still won four stages and leads Hirvonen by 2min 17.0sec. The Frenchman hit the same rock as Grönholm but escaped with no damage. Henning Solberg (Peugeot) held third but the Norwegian retired on the last stage this morning after hitting a tree and holing his car's radiator. Dani Sordo (Citroen) and Gigi Galli (Peugeot) therefore enjoyed a titanic fight for third. They swapped places four times before Sordo eased ahead on the final test by 1.3sec. However, Galli damaged his engine and stopped on the liaison section back to Olbia this evening so Xavi Pons (Citroen) completed the top four. Galli will not restart tomorrow. Chris Atkinson (Subaru) climbed to fifth this morning but a heavy landing over the notorious 'Mickey's Jump' damaged his car's radiator and steering. Repairs in service took longer than expected and he incurred a 2min 20sec penalty. He slipped to eighth but recovered to fifth.
The final day's action moves into new territory for this rally, heading north of Olbia into the Gallura region to tackle stages formerly used on the Costa Smeralda Rally. After leaving Olbia at 07.00, drivers tackle two loops of three stages, two of which are new to this event, before the finish ceremony in Porto Cervo at 14.15. The stages are relatively short with just 77.94km of competition, but it promises to be a real sting in the tail as there is no opportunity to service apart from the regular 10 minutes immediately after the restart.
Leaderboard after Leg 2
1. S Loeb/D Elena F Citroen Xsara 3hr 02min 26.0sec
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 3hr 04min 43.0sec
3. D Sordo/M Marti E Citroen Xsara 3hr 05min 22.0sec
4. X Pons/C Del Barrio E Citroen Xsara 3hr 06min 53.1sec
5. C Atkinson/G MacNeall AUS Subaru Impreza 3hr 08min 22.7sec
6. J Välimäki/J Kalliolepo FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 08min 27.6sec
7. K Sohlberg/T Tuominen FIN Subaru Impreza 3hr 08min 55.1sec
8. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 3hr 09min 23.8sec
9. M Stohl/I Minor A Peugeot 307 3hr 09min 38.3sec
10 F Duval/ P Pivato B Skoda Fabia 3hr 10min 46.7sec