Stage win for Thiry rounds off bright start for Ford
Three Ford Escort World Rally Cars lying inside the top 10 represented a highly satisfactory day's work for Ford's drivers during today's opening leg of the Rally of Great Britain, the 13th and final round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Ford World Rally team drivers Juha Kankkunen and Bruno Thiry held fifth and eighth positions respectively in their Valvoline-backed cars, Thiry rounding off an encouraging day by posting equal fastest time on the final special stage in the darkness of Cheltenham Racecourse this evening.
Sebastian Lindholm, driving a similar car for the Russian Gazprom team in the FIA Teams Cup, was ninth after a long day of short but difficult stages in the Midlands. Competition on the leaderboard was so close that less than 20 seconds divided rally leader Colin McRae from Thiry.
After 30 years of success at the highest level of the sport, all thoughts are focused on an emotional final victory for the Escort in this its last ever World Championship event as a works car before the introduction of the all-new Ford Focus World Rally Car next season. But today's strategy was to steer clear of trouble on the notoriously slippery estate roads and motor racing circuits which traditionally comprise the rally's first leg before the event begins in earnest tomorrow morning in the Welsh forests.
All three drivers followed those orders to the letter with no problems reported by any of them during the 13 special stages which covered just 44.08km.
"I'm feeling confident going into tomorrow's second leg because we're going back to the forests and that's where I'm happiest," said Kankkunen. "The hardest part of today has been the rally schedule that made us tackle six stages on widely differing road surfaces using the same set of Michelin tyres but it was the same for everyone. Today's stages are good for spectators, less so for the drivers and it was really a day for staying on the road, keeping out of trouble and ensuring you did not make any silly mistakes."
Thiry was overjoyed by posting fastest time on the final stage. "I was pushing quite hard, perhaps a little too hard because I clipped a straw bale but there was no problem. Like everyone I'm looking forward to the forests, especially the stages on the final day, but first we must ensure we have a good run tomorrow," he said.
Ford World Rally team director Malcolm Wilson presided over a routine final service before the cars checked into the final control and said: "There's been nothing dramatic today, just a steady run through what are always treacherous stages, and we're in top form for tomorrow. Bruno's fastest time delighted me, because he's not had the easiest of seasons and hopefully this will give him a boost ahead of tomorrow's tough leg."
British Touring Car ace Will Hoy completed the leg in 76th position in his Infogrames-backed two-wheel drive Escort RS2000, the London driver particularly enjoying the stages which incorporated the racing circuit at both Silverstone and Donington. However, his pace on the gravel sections was sufficient to impress experienced co-driver Sean Kelly. "Will is obviously really wise to the racing lines on the circuits but when he gets on the gravel he's not afraid to get sideways for a very long way!" he said.
British Junior Rally champions Stuart and Steve Egglestone are 43rd in their debut drive in an Escort RS2000. The Penrith brothers were relieved to emerge unscathed from the Silverstone tests which proved their downfall last year but even this time the circuit held an unwelcome surprise. "That was the stage on which we retired in 1997 and what did I do? I spun on the first corner! But apart from that it's been a good day. I've settled into the new car very quickly and felt comfortable behind the wheel after only a few miles," explained Stuart.
Tomorrow's second leg will see the drivers on the road for almost 17 hours.
They leave Cheltenham at 05.00 for eight stages in the mid-Wales forests covering 142.99km before the long drive back to the rally base in Cheltenham where they will arrive at 21.48. Longest stage of the day is the 25.70km Sweet Lamb test, which will be held in darkness to add further difficulty for competitors.
Leaderboard after Leg 1
1. C McRae/N Grist GB Subaru Impreza 47min 53.0sec
2. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 47min 56.6sec
3. A McRae/D Senior GB Subaru Impreza 47min 57.2sec
4. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Toyota Corolla 48min 00.9sec
5. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Ford Escort 48min 05.7sec
6. R Burns/R Reid GB Mitsubishi Carisma 48min 09.4sec
7. G De Mevius/J-M Fortin B Subaru Impreza 48min 11.7sec
8. B Thiry/S Prevot B Ford Escort 48min 12.3sec
9. S Lindholm/J Aho FIN Ford Escort 48min 26.2sec
10 K Holowczyc/M Wislawski PL Subaru Impreza 48min 36.0sec