McRae shines in tense fight for lead in Australia Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist were engaged in a thrilling four-car battle for the lead during today's opening leg of the Rally Australia, penultimate round of the FIA World...
McRae shines in tense fight for lead in Australia
Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist were engaged in a thrilling four-car battle for the lead during today's opening leg of the Rally Australia, penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The series leaders' Ford Focus RS World Rally Car lies fourth and just 5.3sec cover the top four cars after a daylong fight over dusty gravel roads in Western Australia.
Team-mates François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup are 10th in their Focus RS with a third Focus of Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya one place behind, grateful to the Ford Martini mechanics who rebuilt the rear of their car to keep them in the rally after the Spanish pair hit a tree stump.
It quickly became apparent that the new system allowing the faster drivers to choose to start lower down the running order, to capitalise on roads swept clear of stones by the early runners, gave them a big advantage. In temperatures reaching 30*C, the competition at the head of the field was so intense that positions changed on virtually every one of today's nine speed tests covering 147.76km east of Perth.
McRae settled into third this morning before briefly taking the lead, by just 0.3sec, after the sixth stage. As the positions switched around, the 33-year-old Scot maintained a strong pace to remain firmly in touch at the top of the leaderboard.
"It was the right decision to run 14th on the road," said McRae. "The roads were much cleaner than if we'd been among the first cars. I'm happy with the way things have gone. This afternoon's stages were a bit more difficult because the roads had been used already this morning and were quite rutted. We eased back a little because we didn't want to take any chances. It's not difficult to find yourself in the trees here."
Delecour had an incident-packed day in the second Focus RS. The 39-year-old Frenchman was ninth when he clipped a small tree on the sixth stage and the car started to fill with smoke. "It was only a small impact but it caused the left rear tyre to rub on the bodywork and we drove the last section of the stage with the doors open," he said. "I've never seen so much smoke in my life, I could hardly see." Delecour used an extinguisher to douse the flames at the end of the stage before continuing to service. The incident cost no time but a broken steering rack on the penultimate stage lost 30 seconds and one place.
Sainz also started well and was fourth, just three seconds from the lead, when he hit a tree stump midway through the sixth stage, breaking his car's rear suspension. He lost 90 seconds limping to the finish with the right rear tyre dragging under the Focus.
He then faced a 26km drive to service before repairs could be made. Twice he had to stop and put out flames as the tyre, jammed against the hot exhaust, ignited. He was unable to free the tyre but battled his way to service, arriving at the time control nine minutes late to accumulate a 90 second time penalty.
Mechanics worked furiously to repair the damage and keep the 39-year-old Madrid-based driver in the rally. In just 20 minutes they changed the suspension, sub-frame, differential, roll bar and links and strut top mountings at the rear of the car, completing the work with seconds to spare and earning huge applause from the watching crowd.
Sainz then set two fastest times, one shared, to take his tally to four for the rally as he climbed back to 11th. "I've just been trying to concentrate on driving as fast as possible since the accident," said Sainz. "My problem tomorrow will be the road position. We must start further up the order than we would like and that will make things harder. However, we've made up a lot of time and it could be so much worse."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson said: "It's been the most eventful day of the year. The mechanics did a fantastic job. The work they achieved on Carlos' car in just 20 minutes was highly impressive. Without their efforts he would have been out of the rally and I must thank them all."
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Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot), fastest on two stages, led for all but one test but his advantage has been a slender one. He is just 3.6sec ahead of Richard Burns (Subaru), also quickest on two stages. Didier Auriol (Peugeot) was the fourth driver in the battle for the lead, the Frenchman fastest on four tests and just 3.8sec behind his team-mate. It has been a difficult day for joint championship leader Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi). This morning he aggravated back injuries suffered during his accident in Corsica last month and has been in severe pain all day. None of the other top drivers have had serious problems and there have been no manufacturer retirements.
The second leg is the longest of the rally, taking drivers on the long journey south to Harvey. They face six more gravel stages, including the 45.43km Wellington Dam, the longest of the event, before returning to Perth for a final run at the Langley Park super special. After re-starting at 05.50, 141.12km of competition lie in wait before drivers reach the final overnight halt at 20.36.