February 14, 2005 The World Rally Championship took an interesting turn at the Rally of Sweden this weekend with WRC favourite Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) and Swedish event favourite Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) were both forced into retirement while battling for podium positions. Subaru's Petter Solberg sealed his first victory in the event by 2min 11.1sec but the big news was that Ford's Toni Gardemeister took the World Rally Championship lead with a third place finish and Ford now leads both the drivers' and manufacturers' standings in the World Rally Championship.
Loeb (Citroen) was on course for second despite engine problems that forced the French team to detune it before the day's action began. He drove slowly to protect the engine, regularly topping it up with water, but it eventually stopped after stage 18. Markko Märtin (Peugeot) therefore took second. Harri Rovanperä (Mitsubishi) split the Ford duo in fourth, despite losing fifth gear on the penultimate test, while Daniel Carlsson recovered from Friday's problem to round off the top six.
Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen finished third in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to head the drivers' series by a point after two of the 16 rounds. Fifth place for Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud in an M-Sport run Focus RS enabled Ford to take a three point advantage in the manufacturers' table.
A dramatic final leg in the countryside around Hagfors in central Sweden set the seal on one of the most exciting world rallies witnessed in recent years. The final six speed tests, two of which were shortened for safety reasons, covered 89.54km, taking the three-day rally's total to 335.55km. Overnight snow and freezing temperatures left many tracks covered in packed snow, while others had a thin layer of powdery snow that blew about in the strong wind. Both were in contrast to some roads earlier in the rally that were worn down to gravel after a lack of pre-event snow.
Gardemeister and Honkanen recovered from a poor start to begin the final leg in fifth in their Castrol-branded Focus RS. The 29-year-old Finnish driver posted three consecutive second fastest times to see off the challenge of fellow countryman Harri Rovanpera. As the pressures and the tough special stages took their toll on both man and machine ahead of them, Gardemeister climbed to his second consecutive podium finish.
"Absolutely fantastic!" he said. "To be leading both world championships is a superb situation for both myself and Ford. I've never been in this position before. My pace wasn't so good on the first day but I've felt much more comfortable since and gained a lot more confidence in the car. I took no risks but just kept to a speed with which I felt happy. The last two stages were comfortable. The team sent us split times for Rovanpera and I was able to moderate my speed accordingly to ensure he didn't get too close. We had some luck with the retirement of drivers ahead of us, but the Focus is a strong car and while others had problems, we didn't."
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the result. "I can't ask for more than to be leading both championships," he said. "All three drivers finished in the points here and that is a tribute not only to their pace but also to the strength and reliability of the Focus. Conditions have been unusual but we've had no major technical difficulties all weekend." Round three takes competitors to Mexico for the first gravel rally of the season, though at times the competitors might easily have mistaken the Rally of Sweden as a gravel rally as little snow was encountered. The Rally Mexico is based in Leon on 10 - 13 March.
Final positions - Swedish Rally 1. P Solberg (Nor) / P Mills (GB) - Subaru Impreza 3hr 00min 52.1sec 2. M Martin (Est) / M Park (GB) - Peugeot 307 +2:11.1 3. T Gardemeister (Fin) / J Honkanen (FIN) - Ford Focus RS +3:14.7 4. H Rovanpera (Fin) / R Pietilainen (Fin) - Mitsubishi Lancer +3:26.4 5. H Solberg (Nor) / C Menkerud (Nor) - Ford Focus RS +3:29.8 6. D Carlsson (Swe) / M Andersson (Swe) - Peugeot 307 +3:42.5 7. G Galli (Ita) / G D'Amore (Ita) - Mitsubishi Lancer +4:04.0 8. R Kresta (Cz) / J Tomanek (Cz) - Ford Focus RS +4:39.6
Final positions - Monte Carlo Rally (Round 1) 1. S Loeb (Fra) / D Elena (Mon) - Citroen Xsara 4hr 13min 05.6sec 2. T Gardemeister (Fin) / J Honkanen (Fin) - Ford Focus RS +2:58.3 3. G Panizzi (Fra) / H Panizzi (Fra) - Mitsubishi Lancer +3:40.1 4. M Martin (Est) / M Park (GB) - Peugeot 307 +5:27.7 5. M Gronholm (Fin) / T Rautiainen (Fin) - Peugeot 307 +7:33.8 6. M Stohl (Aut) / I Minor (Aut) - Citroen Xsara +8:08.9 7. H Rovanpera (Fin) / R Pietilainen (Fin) - Mitsubishi Lancer +8:29.3 8. R Kresta (Cz) / J Tomanek (Cz) - Ford Focus RS +9:18.1
World Rally Drivers Championship (after round 2 of 16) 1. T Gardemeister 14pts 2. M Martin 13pts 3= S Loeb 10pts 3= P Solberg 10pts 5. H Rovanpera 7pts 6. G Panizzi 6pts 7= H Solberg 4pts
World Rally Manufacturers Championship (after round 2 of 16) 1. Ford 20pts 2= Peugeot 17pts 2= Mitsubishi 17pts 4. Citroen 11pts 5. Subaru 10pts 6. Skoda 3pts