Ford turns attentions to testing after McRae blow

Colin McRae and Nicky Grist will switch their aim from chasing victory to perfecting the ideal set-up for their Ford Focus World Rally Car after an engine fault on today's opening leg of Spain's Catalunya Rally ended hopes of a third successive FIA World Rally Championship event win. The Ford Martini pairing, already winners in Kenya and Portugal this season, saw any chance of a hat-trick disappear on the fifth of today's eight stages on asphalt mountain roads around Vic and Girona when lying sixth, less than 11 seconds from the lead.

The valve in the car's anti-lag system failed, preventing the turbocharger from developing full boost pressure. McRae dropped four minutes after stopping in the stage to investigate the problem which, in power terms, left the 30-year-old Scot driving the equivalent of a Ford Focus road car rather than a 300bhp World Rally Car.

He completed the stage but had to tackle the next test before Ford Martini engineers could examine the Focus and restore it to full health. McRae dropped around six minutes, ending the day in 33rd position with no chance of scoring championship points. He will now use the final two days of the rally to test revised settings on the car in advance of next month's Tour of Corsica, another all-asphalt rally.

"Until that happened, the Focus felt good," said McRae. "I felt we were in contention for a top three finish. If we use the next two days to test it will be a big benefit for Corsica. We haven't completed a great deal of asphalt testing so this is now a good opportunity to do just that," added McRae, who, like Grist, is suffering from a cold.

Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson explained the significance of the testing. "It's very important bearing in mind that the Tour of Corsica is just two weeks away. There's nothing like the heat of competition to learn about the car and the 46km stage tomorrow afternoon will be very interesting because it gives us an ideal opportunity to test differential settings. We will spend the day concentrating on differential and suspension settings and tonight we have set up the car with this in mind."

Simon Jean-Joseph and co-driver Fred Gallagher, in the second Ford Focus World Rally Car, ended the leg in 12th, the 29-year-old Martinique-based driver re-acclimatising himself to the car on his first event since January's Monte Carlo Rally.

"The Focus felt much better than in Monte Carlo - the engine, the dampers and the weight much improved. It's been a little too soft for much of the day which has affected the handling but that was resolved so I think tomorrow will be good. It handles how I like it now and I think we can challenge Bruno Thiry and Juha Kankkunen," said Jean-Joseph.

News from our Rivals

Lightweight two-wheel drive cars dominated, the Citroen Xsaras of Jesus Puras and Philippe Bugalski holding the top two places, Puras posting fastest time on four stages. With regulations allowing a minimum weight of 960kg compared with a limit of 1230kg for four-wheel drive cars, the Xsaras made the most of the power to weight advantage. Toyota duo Didier Auriol and Carlos Sainz led the challenge, 1998 event winner Auriol setting two fastest times en route to third with Sainz just behind. Their only problem came when Auriol broke two wheel rims on the long fifth stage but Michelin's ATS mousse system kept the tyres inflated, Auriol setting fastest time on the next test with a punctured tyre still on the car. Maintaining the formation, Mitsubishi duo Tommi Makinen and Freddy Loix held fifth and sixth, Loix impressing on his first rally after his big accident in Kenya. Armin Schwarz produced Skoda's best performance yet to hold eighth in the Octavia while the SEAT's of Harri Rovanpera and Piero Liatti struggled with little grip from their tyres. A combination of suspension and tyre maladies kept the Subarus of Richard Burns and Bruno Thiry down in seventh and 10th respectively.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg is the longest and most arduous of the rally. Drivers will leave Lloret de Mar at 07.30 for a long journey past Barcelona into the Tarragona region. Once there they will face six stages covering almost 170km before making the return drive, arriving back in the holiday resort at 21.26 after a total route of more than 825km. The final three stages total more than 110km, each of which is more than 30km.

Key Stage Nicky Grist: "The penultimate stage is almost 46km long and the drivers will be worried about preserving their tyres. That distance flat out on the same rubber is a lot for the tyres to take so we must try to preserve them while still getting as close to maximum performance as we can. A stage of 46km is far harder than two stages of 35km and 11km because there is no let up and the strain is continuous. Generally speaking, the road surface is much more abrasive than today and so tyre selection will be critical."

Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. J Puras/M Marti E Citroen Xsara 1hr 27min 19.4sec 2. P Bugalski/J-P Chiaroni F Citroen Xsara 1hr 27min 26.4sec 3. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Toyota Corolla 1hr 27min 29.7sec 4. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 1hr 27min 36.8sec 5. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 27min 53.7sec 6. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 1hr 28min 15.5sec 7. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 28min 29.7sec 8. A Schwarz/M Hiemer D Skoda Octavia 1hr 28min 46.2sec 9. A Lopes/L Lisboa P Peugeot 306 1hr 28min 50.4sec 10 B Thiry/S Prevot B Subaru Impreza 1hr 29min 04.7sec 12 S Jean-Joseph/F Gallagher F Ford Focus 1hr 29min 13.7sec 33 C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 1hr 34min 44.9sec