MÃ¤rtin impresses as Ford makes solid start in Monte Carlo Ford Rallye Sport's Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park delivered an impressive performance en route to sixth place in today's opening leg of the Monte Carlo Rally. Driving in treacherous...
M?rtin impresses as Ford makes solid start in Monte Carlo
Ford Rallye Sport's Markko M?rtin and Michael Park delivered an impressive performance en route to sixth place in today's opening leg of the Monte Carlo Rally. Driving in treacherous and ever-changing road conditions that were a mix of snow, slush, ice and wet asphalt, Ford's new team leader set a fine example to his young team-mates as all three Focus RS World Rally Cars completed a daunting opening day of the FIA World Rally Championship season.
Twenty-two-year-old Fran?ois Duval and co-driver Jean-Marc Fortin lie 10th with Finland's Mikko Hirvonen, also 22, and Jarmo Lehtinen in 13th on only their fourth world rally and their debut drive for Ford.
The 51 entrants tackled a gruelling 16-hour day, comprising 196.30km of competition over six speed tests high in the Alps of southern France. It accounted for almost half the competitive distance of the three-day rally, the oldest and most famous event in the 14-round championship. Freezing conditions early this morning and late this evening tested the skills and bravery of the drivers over the narrow and twisty mountain cols, although bright sunshine turned the snow and ice into slush in the middle of the day, making tyre selection critical.
M?rtin, whose only knowledge of these stages came in 2002 when there was hardly any snow or ice, produced a performance which belied his inexperience. He was always inside the top eight points-scoring despite twice spinning and stalling the engine of his Focus RS, incidents which cost the 27-year-old Estonian about 30 seconds in total.
"This is a difficult rally and I can't really say I'm enjoying it," said M?rtin. "The morning stages were 50 per cent snow and ice and 50 per cent asphalt and I felt I needed more information in our pace notes for the slippery sections. I didn't push too hard and it's a shame I made some mistakes, but even allowing for the time lost I don't think I would have been higher than sixth. Tomorrow I would like to see less snow and ice and more clean asphalt. We don't have any plans for the second leg. I'm in a good position already and if I finished here I would be happy with that result."
Duval, who last year won the Junior World Rally Championship category on this event, joined M?rtin in a manufacturer points-scoring position. A lowly running position created difficulties for the Belgian this morning as the cars ahead dragged snow onto the road and most corners were full snow by the time Duval tackled the stages. He was seventh fastest on the third stage, his best performance of the day, but dropped 50secs on the next test after sliding into a tree.
"There were two left-hand bends together and the second contained a lot of mud. The rear of the car slid wide and into a tree about four kilometres from the finish," explained Duval. The impact damaged the car's right rear wheel and he had to drive 21km to the Tallard service park on the brake disc, only the strength of the Focus RS ensuring it survived. Mechanics worked furiously in the service park to fit a new rear suspension and axle, earning huge applause as they restored the car to full health with no additional penalties.
"They did a great job and the car is fine now," said Duval. "The final stage was probably the hardest of all for me because we started in daylight and it got darker and darker. The conditions in the second half had changed so much since our gravel crew drove through that it was very tricky," he added.
Hirvonen was always happier on the snow and ice than the mixed conditions. "It's much easier for me in those conditions as it's more like driving at home in Finland," he said. "I'm really pleased we've finished today as not even Tommi M?kinen achieved that. That shows how hard driving was. I've learned a lot about the car and my aim hasn't changed - I just want to finish the rally."
Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson said the day had been 'much better than expected.' "We have three cars in the top 13 places, with the experience of just two previous Monte Carlo rallies between the three drivers. They've done a good job and learned a lot very quickly. The cars have run faultlessly and during the next two days we must concentrate on getting all three to the finish," he said.
Technical director Christian Loriaux said pre-event testing had helped greatly as a revised differential set-up tried last week worked well today and the drivers had gained valuable experience of driving in similar conditions for the first time.
News from our Rivals
World champion Marcus Gr?nholm (Peugeot) started the 2003 season in the same style in which he dominated the 2002 campaign. The Finn powered into the lead on the opening stage and ended the day 20.6sec ahead, having posted three fastest times from the six speed tests. His only fright came on the penultimate stage when he hit a bridge parapet. His closest pursuer was Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) who recorded two quickest times and shared one with new team-mate Colin McRae, who lies third. The Scot lost time with a spin on the fourth stage while another Citroen newcomer, Carlos Sainz, dropped time on the second stage after spinning into a wall. The day was not kind to asphalt king Gilles Panizzi (Peugeot). He began the first day handicapped by a one minute penalty after failing to report that his car's tracking system was not working during the recce. He then lost time after damaging a wheel on a snow-covered stone and was unable to recover lost time. Both Subaru cars were sidelined on the penultimate test. Second-placed Petter Solberg hit standing water and crashed into a bridge and Tommi M?kinen, chasing an unprecedented fifth consecutive win, also crashed after hitting ice. The only other major retirement was Toni Gardemeister (Skoda) who stopped in the second stage with engine problems.
After today's daunting leg, the competitors face an easier task tomorrow. Two laps of two long stages north of Grasse are scheduled, comprising 114.52km in a route of 413.99km. However, with the opening test exceeding 1400 metres and the other approaching 1200 metres, the possibility of snow and ice is just as strong as in today's leg. After leaving Monaco at 06.40, they return at 16.52.