DEBUT WIN FOR NEW FOCUS RS WRC AS GRÖNHOLM CREATES HISTORY
BP-Ford's new Focus RS World Rally Car scored a one-two finish on its debut in Finland today as the team stretched its lead in the FIA World Rally Championship to 40 points. In winning Rally Finland for the seventh time in eight years, Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen entered the record books as the first drivers to win a full WRC event on seven occasions. Team-mates and fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen delighted the huge home crowds by taking second.
The new Focus RS dominated this ninth round of the championship to such an extent that it won 20 of the 23 speed tests through the blisteringly fast Finnish forests. Grönholm won 16 stages, Hirvonen three and the pair shared fastest time on one test. This was Grönholm's 29th world rally victory and his third in a row and he has extended his lead in the drivers' championship to 13 points with seven rallies remaining. Maximum points enabled BP-Ford World Rally Team to increase its lead in the manufacturers' standings by another 12 points.
Rally Finland is the fastest event in the series. The smooth, flowing roller-coaster roads demanded precision and bravery in equal measure and average speeds topped 132kph. Drivers tackled 23 special stages covering 360.34km near Jyväskylä. The BP-Ford drivers fought tooth and nail for every tenth of a second during the opening leg but 39-year-old Grönholm edged clear during yesterday's marathon second leg and came home 24.2sec ahead of his 27-year-old colleague.
"When I started driving at 19 I never thought I could win Rally Finland on seven occasions," said Grönholm. "Mikko pushed me incredibly hard all weekend and there was never an opportunity to relax. One small error on my part and he would have been passed me. I'm happy that he helped my championship challenge by finishing in front of Loeb. This result is great for both the drivers' and the manufacturers' championships. It was important for the title for me to score 10 points here.
"We've made a step forward with the new car, which was reliable all weekend and never missed a beat. The top speed has increased and in Finland, which is the fastest in the championship, that made a difference. We've been airborne and landed in places that we've never been before!" he added.
Hirvonen relished the battle with his team-mate. "I tried to push Marcus as hard as I could and it was a great duel," he said. "It's a big step up mentally for me to be up there matching Marcus. I knew I could be fast here but the fact I was able to maintain that pace throughout the weekend was really satisfying. I loved every minute of it and it was a fantastic event. They are scary due to the speed, but Finland's stages are the best in the world. I've never driven this fast anywhere before.
"The new Focus RS was great on these fast roads and it's a pleasure to have a machine like that to drive. The handling is easier and the car felt lighter in places. We've made a bigger step forward on gravel than I thought," he added.
Team Abu Dhabi pairing Khalid Al Qassimi and Nicky Beech finished 16th in another Focus RS on their debut with the BP-Ford team. "It was everything I thought it would be," said 35-year-old Al Qassimi. "It was hard work but enjoyable. I came to Finland to learn and get a good feeling with the car. Everything in Finland is so special and I would love to see a rally like this in Abu Dhabi."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was overjoyed by the success. "I have two diamonds in the team. Both drove fantastically and made no mistakes. For them to create that time margin over Loeb was superb. We have a great package and the new car was faultless. It is one of the best one-two finishes we've had and to achieve that on the fastest rally in the championship is the icing on the cake. There was huge pressure on Marcus but he drove perfectly and Mikko also did an incredible job," he said.
Ford TeamRS director Jost Capito said: "To take a one-two finish is the perfect start for the new Focus RS WRC. All the team's hard work in developing the car paid off on its first event and this result has given us huge confidence for the rest of the season."
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With large times between drivers, there was no significant movement on the leaderboard. Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) completed the podium while Xevi Pons (Subaru) rounded off the top six on his debut for the team. Urmo Aava (Mitsubishi) and Mads Östberg (Subaru) scored their first drivers' points in seventh and eighth while Luis Perez Companc and Federico Villagra (both Ford) claimed a double points haul for the Munchi's Ford team. Jan Kopecky (Skoda) was an early retirement when he crashed out of 10th on the first stage while Andreas Mikkelsen (Ford) also crashed on the final test.
The championship returns to asphalt later this month for the first time since Rallye Monte Carlo in January. Germany's oldest city of Trier hosts Rallye Deutschland on 16 - 19 August.
1. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Ford Focus RS 2hr 57min 26.1sec
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 2hr 57min 50.3sec
3. S Loeb/D Elena F Citroen C4 2hr 58min 36.0sec
4. C Atkinson/ S Prévot AUS Subaru Impreza 3hr 00min 28.9sec
5. H Solberg/C Menkerud N Ford Focus RS 3hr 01min 55.5sec
6. X Pons/X Amigo E Subaru Impreza 3hr 04min 26.6sec
7. U Aava/K Sikk EE Mitsubishi Lancer 3hr 05min 05.7sec
8. M Östberg/O Unnerud N Subaru Impreza 3hr 06min 58.0sec
9 G Wilks/P Pugh GB Ford Focus RS 3hr 07min 05.5sec
10 M Wilson/M Orr GB Ford Focus RS 3hr 08min 39.5sec
1. M Grönholm 75pts
2. S Loeb 62pts
3. M Hirvonen 57pts
4= H Solberg 28pts
4= D Sordo 28pts
6. P Solberg 26pts
1. BP-Ford 132pts
2. Citroen Total 92pts
3. Subaru 48pts
4. Stobart VK M-Sport Ford 45pts
5. OMV Kronos Citroen 27pts
6. Munchi's Ford 6pts