McRae and Ford Martini lead Rally Australia
Ford Martini World Rally team drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist made a perfect start to lead the Rally Australia tonight as the four-day event moved into top gear in spectacular fashion in Perth. Huge crowds enjoyed superb entertainment at the opening special stage in Langley Park as two cars at a time raced each other under floodlights over the twists and jumps of a purpose-built gravel circuit - the traditional curtain raiser to this 13th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist posted fastest time in their four-wheel drive Ford Focus World Rally Car, four-tenths of a second faster than their closest rivals as they thrilled the thousands of spectators lining the 2.20km stage. Thomas Rådström and co-driver Fred Gallagher were ninth quickest in their similar Focus, just 1.5sec behind their team-mates.
On a day when the Ford Martini team announced that Carlos Sainz will join the line-up next season, McRae and Grist provided the ideal beginning to the gruelling 1425km rally, which ends on Sunday afternoon.
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Second fastest behind McRae was Frenchman Didier Auriol (Toyota) with his rival for the world drivers' title, Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi), third quickest, only a tenth of a second slower. Completing the top six were Juha Kankkunen (Subaru), Freddy Loix (Mitsubishi) and Harri Rovanperä (SEAT). Such was the intensity of the competition that just 1.8sec covered the top 10 cars.
The rally starts in earnest tomorrow when the leading drivers depart Perth at 07.00. In front of them lie 10 more gravel stages, the majority in the Western Australian outback to the east of the city, covering more than 130km. After a repeat of tonight's Langley Park test, they arrive back at Perth for an overnight halt at 20.13
Nicky Grist: "Tomorrow we tackle two long stages, SS8 and SS9, which are over 30km with no service in between. They are both fast with tricky narrow sections and both caused drama last year for us. Because they are long, if we can develop a good rhythm throughout it is a good opportunity to gain vital seconds on our rivals."