Breen equals record finish as FSTi gets underway in Portugal
The 2009 Fiesta SportTrophy International (FSTi) kicked off this weekend at the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Vodafone Rally de Portugal, showcasing many drivers who were making their first competitive experience on a WRC event. The opening round of the six race series was dominated by Irishman Craig Breen (19) and Welsh co-driver Gareth Roberts (21) finishing 25th in the overall standings which equals the record of 2007 FSTi champion Barry Clark (fittingly, a record first set in Portugal two years ago).
Second place went to Patrick Anglade and co-driver Bjorn Rohm (29). The 21-year-old from Germany, who was competing in his first ever gravel rally and his first WRC event outside his homeland, also achieved an outstanding overall finish position of 30th. Team Abu Dhabi had a great start to their season as Ahmed Al Mansoori (22) took third place with Irishman Killian Duffy (26) reading the notes. There was disappointment for their team mates as Bader Al Jabri (24) and co-driver Stephen McAuley and Majed Al Shamsi (28) and co-driver Allan Harryman had to retire from the rally after both rolled their cars on Day Two. On his return to FSTi for a second season, Russia's Denis Grodetskiy and co-driver Safoniy Lotko were forced out of the rally two stages from the end with an oil leak.
A spectacular 2.2km Super Special stage in the Algarve Stadium marked the start of the rally on Thursday night and with thousands of fans inside the arena it was a great experience for the young drivers. Breen started as he meant to go on leading the FSTi cars home ahead of Anglade and Al Mansoori.
Day 1 saw the competitors tackle 136 km of rough and rocky stages in the Algarve hills. Breen made his mark on the competition, winning all three morning stages and building up a lead over the consistent Anglade. There were just seconds between the Team Abu Dhabi drivers all morning with Al Mansoori marginally taking the edge. SS2 saw Al Jabri finish just 0.2 seconds behind Al Mansoori, although Al Jabri left himself with work to do after beaching the car at a hairpin corner on SS4 and losing just under four minutes. Grodetskiy posted a strong time only 25.3 seconds slower than Breen over 22 km on SS6, an amazing feat given that the boot of his Fiesta ST had opened midway through the stage, filling the car with dust until the crew could barely see the road ahead. He continued into the last stage of the morning in a similar condition, so was relieved when he could take the car to be fixed in service. Going into the midday service, Breen led Anglade by 31.8 seconds, with Grodetskiy just 19.3 seconds behind the German and Al Mansoori a mere 0.5 seconds in fourth position.
The morning's stages were repeated for the afternoon, albeit with significantly rougher sections after the first run through. Breen took the fastest times on each stage, with Anglade always close behind him in second. Grodetskiy lost over seven minutes with a puncture on SS5, dropping him from third to last after that stage. But worse was to come for Al Mansoori, whose damaged clutch went on to affect his gearbox, bringing the car to a halt and incurring a ten minute penalty under SupeRally regulations. Al Jabri damaged his hub on SS5, a problem which he thought he'd carried into SS7, only realising at the end of the stage that he had sustained a puncture. Al Shamsi also suffered a puncture five km from the end of SS5. With a third of the WRC field in retirement by the end of the first day, the FSTi drivers were going exceptionally well, with Breen leading the way to Anglade and then Al Shamsi.
Day 2 saw the cancellation of SS9 and SS12, meaning that the drivers only needed to complete four stages that day. While Breen continued his charge at the head of the field, Al Shamsi's rally came to an abrupt end as he rolled on SS10, while Grodetskiy lost time on the same stage when he hit a rock, losing the front left wheel and breaking the rear beam, ending his rally for that day.
Later that afternoon, Al Jabri was forced out of the rally when he rolled in exactly the same place as team mate Al Shamsi on the second pass of the stage. Breen's luck changed when he suffered a front left puncture on SS13, nine kms from the end. Fortunately the Irishman had built up a big enough cushion over the chasing Anglade not to affect his time. Al Mansoori took his first stage win by just 3.1 seconds to Anglade. In another day of high attrition that witnessed nearly 40% of the field having stopped, four Fiestas now remained.
Like the previous day, Day 3 saw the cancellation of SS15 and SS17, again due to accidents higher up the field. The morning's stages passed without incident, while the afternoon claimed Grodetskiy, forcing him to retire due to an oil leak. Anglade was overjoyed to take his first stage win on SS1, earning him one extra point in the standings.
Breen, Anglade and Al Mansoori returned from the final gravel stage to a crowd of thousands awaiting them in the Algarve Stadium Super Special, where Breen claimed his final victorious stage win by one second to Anglade and 12.6 seconds to Al Mansoori.
The next event on the FSTi calendar will be Rally d'Italia Sardegna in May, followed by Rally Poland, Rally de Espana and closing in Wales Rally GB.
FSTi winner Craig Breen (19) from the Republic of Ireland said:
"I'm ecstatic! It's been a really good week even though the conditions have been quite difficult throughout the rally. Everything's gone extremely well and we've been really lucky that we've only had one real problem all weekend. The efforts of Tom [Gahan] and the team have really paid off with this class win and I just can't believe we've equalled the record for highest finishing Fiesta. I badly wanted this win -- I'm absolutely over the moon!"