Rallying: Ford's hopes rest with Grönholm after Hirvonen makes early exit

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The Independent Online

Ford's hopes of winning their home event on the World Rally Championship for the first time in 27 years rest with Marcus Grönholm after his team-mate Mikko Hirvonen was forced to pull out yesterday.

The Cumbria-based team were dominating Wales Rally GB. Ford's two Finnish drivers led the charge in the opening three stages, Hirvonen relishing his release from team orders and the opportunity to measure his pace against the illustrious Grönholm.

The younger man was evidently undaunted by a hefty collision with a rock in the fog of the first stage that redesigned the bodywork of the Focus. But at the service following stage three, an official discovered a dent to the car's roll cage and ruled it unsafe to drive. Hirvonen's rally, and season, were over.

A dismayed Hirvonen said: "I wanted to carry on but they wouldn't let me. I'm really disappointed because this was my chance to go for it and show what I could do. I hit a rock at the end of the first stage and tipped the car over but we didn't roll. It was a stupid mistake. The door is damaged and I couldn't open it. I was managing to drive and push OK. It's a shame to end the season in this way because it looked as though we could get first and second here.''

The damage rendered Hirvonen's performance all the more admirable. He attacked the slippery, twisty track with the determination of a man on a mission. To Hirvonen's dismay, it was all in vain.

His withdrawal puts additional pressure on Grönholm, who drove with the authority befitting his experience and the car's superiority. His closest challenger is Norway's Petter Solberg, trying to defy the limitations of the current Subaru and win Rally GB for the fifth year in succession. Third was Austria's Manfred Stohl, in a Peugeot.

Grönholm was fastest on four of the day's six stages and it appears that as long as he steers clear of rocks and other obstacles, he will collect his seventh win of the season and end Ford's frustration in this country.

The problem for Ford is that they no longer have margin for error or misfortune. Grönholm duly opted for prudence in the afternoon and completed the day with a lead of 25.8sec.

He said: "We were pushing hard but taking no risks. I'm enjoying it at the moment but I'm not looking forward to it when it rains - and that is forecast for later in the weekend.''

Gronholm's immediate concern may be to negotiate the last two days safely, but he admits his sights are already on next season and the prospect of taking the drivers' title from Sébastien Loeb, who has missed four rallies with a broken arm.

Britain's Kris Meeke and Guy Wilks, competing in the junior world championship, ran into problems as they sought to stake their claims for drives in the senior category.

Wales Rally GB (Swansea): Leading standing (after first six stages): 1 M Grönholm (Fin) Ford 1hr 14min 51.900sec; 2 P Solberg (Nor) Subaru +25.800sec; 3 M Stohl (Aut) Peugeot 48.100; 4 J-M Latvala (Fin) Ford +1min 54.400sec; 5 D Sordo (Sp) Citroën 2:11.000; 6 X Pons (Sp) Citroën 2:11.900; 7 C Atkinson (Aus) Subaru 2:46.200; 8 M Higgins (GB) Ford 2:52.700; 9 F Duval (Bel) Skoda 2:53.100; 10 H Rovanpera (Fin) Skoda 3:40.200.