McRae's stage win sets up second day attack
Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz both ended today's opening leg of the Swedish International Rally in the top six in their Ford Focus World Rally Cars. McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist readied themselves for a second day attack by winning tonight's final speed test to hold fourth overall while Sainz and co-driver Luis Moya are sixth.
This second rally of the FIA World Championship is billed as the only true winter event in the 14-round series but this year's rally has one missing ingredient - winter conditions. There's been barely a snowflake to be seen in today's eight special stages north of the rally base in Karlstad, ice the only clue that the rally is being held in the midst of a Swedish February.
Fears that gravel appearing through the thin covering of ice would rip the tiny tungsten-tipped studs, used to provide grip in winter conditions, from the tyres themselves proved unfounded. However, organisers were still forced to cancel one test and shorten four more, slashing 20km from the day's action.
McRae made a slow start, stalling the Focus' engine on the first stage, but he quickly recovered and his pace increased as the day went on. He posted four top three times and ended the leg as the top non-Scandinavian driver on what is one of the most specialised rallies in the championship and an event dominated by Nordic drivers throughout its 50-year history.
"I'm extremely happy tonight," said 31-year-old McRae as team mechanics performed routine maintenance on his Focus. "The first couple of stages didn't go as well as we'd hoped but since then it's been much better. I still have a little speed left in reserve for tomorrow and hopefully we can use that to move further up the leaderboard.
"Conditions haven't been as bad as we thought and as the day has gone on, it has got warmer and warmer. It's been quite a clear day so the temperature may drop quickly tonight and if it's cold early tomorrow the harder surface may be tougher on the studs," added McRae.
Sainz, driving on only his second rally in the Focus, was second fastest on the opening stage and then settled into a top six position. He lies just 12.7sec behind McRae and firmly in contention with two days of tough driving left. "It's not been a bad day apart from the third stage when we lost quite a bit of time," said the 37-year-old double world champion. "The car was understeering which put an additional load on the front tyres. That meant they gripped less, the car understeered more and it became a vicious circle.
"We altered the set up on the car and that improved things a lot. It's not perfect yet but we're heading in the right direction. This rally is so fast and I still don't have 100 per cent confidence in the set-up and if you're anything less than 100 per cent confident here it reflects in your times," added Sainz.
Co-driver Moya added an interesting footnote on the conditions. "The final stage tonight was the first time I've ever done a stage in Sweden that was pure gravel, with no snow or ice anywhere. You cannot imagine how much grip Michelin's studded tyres gave us in those conditions. It was so grippy we had to be careful not to roll!"
Team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with today's performance. "Both cars performed well, as have both drivers. Colin's times were consistently good and if you discount the one bad stage for Carlos, he would be on the fringes of the top three. I think Marcus Grönholm and Thomas Rådström benefited from being slightly lower in the running order and perhaps Carlos will benefit from that tomorrow," he said.
News from our Rivals
Today has belonged to Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot), setting aside his Monte Carlo disappointment, to lead from stage two. After struggling on the opening stage with differential and hydraulic problems, he recovered swiftly, never losing his grip and posting four fastest times to open up a 15.0 second lead over privately-entered Swede, Thomas Rådström. Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) spent most of the day in third, despite going off the road briefly on stage three and breaking a wheel rim two tests later. Mechanics changed the transmission system this evening after the Finn complained throughout the day of a noise. Richard Burns (Subaru) stepped up his pace after switching to an evolution tyre used successfully by team-mate Juha Kankkunen on the first two stages. The Briton set fastest time on the next test. Seat trio Didier Auriol, Toni Gardemeister and Harri Rovanperä struggled in the conditions, Auriol collecting a 10 second penalty after stopping to check his car's engine and briefly unable to restart it. Kenneth Eriksson and Alister McRae gave the Hyundai Accent an encouraging debut, Eriksson setting good times after dropping two minutes this morning with a loose turbo pipe. McRae lost time with a propshaft vibration and incurred penalties this afternoon after a late departure from service.
The second leg is the most demanding of all. After leaving Karlstad at 06.15, drivers face a long journey north-east to Borlänge. In previous years they have stayed there overnight but this year they return to Karlstad, arriving at 21.10. During 15 hours of driving they tackle six stages covering 153km, including the 47.65km Jutbo, the longest and most important of all. Organisers have no route alterations planned.
Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 06min 27.2sec 2. T Rådström/T Thörner S Toyota Corolla 1hr 06min 42.2sec 3. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 06min 45.3sec 4. C McRae/N Grist E Ford Focus 1hr 06min 51.5sec 5. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 06min 55.6sec 6. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 07min 04.2sec 7. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 07min 10.1sec 8. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 1hr 07min 34.2sec 9. T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Seat Cordoba 1hr 07min 48.5sec 10 D Auriol/D Giraudet F Seat Cordoba 1hr 08min 30.6sec