Sainz shows well on Ford Focus debut drive

Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya made an encouraging debut for the Ford Martini World Rally Team today by holding an excellent fourth position after the opening leg of the Monte Carlo Rally. The Spanish pair, driving a Ford Focus World Rally Car for the first time, outpaced many rivals more familiar with their cars during the opening day of the first FIA World Championship rally of the new millennium.

Ford Martini colleagues Colin McRae and Nicky Grist held seventh as the competitors arrived at Gap for the overnight halt, the British pair slipping back during the afternoon tests after holding a strong fourth following the first two of the day's five stages.

Sainz put all the experience and cunning of a double world champion to good use on the stages over hostile Alpine mountain roads. Ice was prevalent on many sections exposed to biting northerly winds, conditions far removed from the mild temperatures and glorious sunshine which greeted drivers as they left the start this morning in Monaco's picturesque Casino Square.

Tyre selection, as ever on this rally, was crucial. The absence of snow encouraged both Ford Martini drivers to select Michelin's dry asphalt racing tyres for the opening three stages. But even then conditions typified the dilemma which all competitors faced. Icy patches illustrated clearly just how much tyre choice is always a question of compromise and both Sainz and McRae were happy with their selections throughout the day.

The 37-year-old Madrid-based Sainz admitted he was still trying to learn about the Focus but said things had gone 'better and better' as the day went on. "It's quite difficult for me to find the limits of the Focus. In testing you don't drive as fast as you do on a rally so it's quite hard to know the limits. The grip is good and the road holding is good so I must just learn the boundaries," said Sainz.

"Tomorrow is a long day. I doubt whether the conditions will be any easier but if we can continue to make the same kind of progress that we have this afternoon then we can be fairly confident," he added.

McRae, fourth after the second stage, lost a little time after electing to stiffen the suspension settings on his Focus, a decision he later reversed. Minor troubles with the steering rack also played on his mind and the Ford Martini mechanics fitted a replacement at the final service park of the day.

"I could hear a noise coming from the rack," said McRae. "There was too much free play in the steering and the car was moving about quite a lot on the road which didn't really help my confidence. The team has put a new rack in so we'll see what effect that has tomorrow morning.

"Conditions have been hard today. Although it's been dry in most places there have been patches of ice waiting to catch you out. The final two stages were different though. There was a lot of ice and we fitted full studded tyres which was the right decision," he added.

Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson was satisfied with the opening day's performance. "We've not had any major troubles which is obviously important at this early point in the rally and both Focus cars have run well. Conditions on the Monte Carlo Rally are always from easy and this year is no exception. It's been a difficult day for Carlos to have to learn to drive a new car but he's done well, displaying the kind of consistency which we knew he would bring to the team. Today has been very much an apperitif for what is to come and we're pleased to be here and in contention," said Wilson.

News from our Rivals The leading trio of Tommi Makinen (Mitsubishi), Richard Burns (Subaru) and Gilles Panizzi (Peugeot) dominated the day. Only once during the five stages did any other driver break into the top three times. Each had a turn at leading, Panizzi ahead after the first stage, Burns taking over for the next two and world champion Makinen moving ahead after the penultimate test. None suffered serious problems, Makinen reporting a wheel vibration on the first stage, Burns spinning on the next and Panizzi bending a wheel on the same test. Francois Delecour (Peugeot) did well to hold fifth despite suffering food poisoning and breaking the rear suspension on the second stage while team-mate Marcus Gronholm changed a gearbox. Seat duo Didier Auriol and Toni Gardemeister posted impressive times, the young Finn lying sixth. Auriol, making his debut for the team, slipped off the leaderboard after spinning and stalling the engine twice on the final two stages. On the second occasion his hand accidentally hit a switch, locking the car's central differential and affecting its handling. Skoda pair Armin Schwarz and Luis Climent had a difficult day, engine problems delaying Schwarz and Climent dropping time after spinning on ice.

Tomorrow's Route After the shortest leg of the rally today, drivers face the longest tomorrow when they will spend more than 12 hours behind the wheel. After leaving Gap at 07.00, they face five more stages covering 162km during a loop of the town, returning for the final overnight halt at 19.56. All the stages are more than 20km, and the third of the day, the massive 48.55km Plan de Vitrolles - Faye, is the test which caused so many problems for the front-runners on the opening morning in 1999.

Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 22min 34.1sec 2. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 22min 46.4sec 3. G Panizzi/H Panizzi F Peugeot 206 1hr 23min 04.7sec 4. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 24min 25.2sec 5. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 1hr 24min 39.0sec 6. T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Seat Cordoba 1hr 24min 55.5sec 7. C McRae/N Grist E Ford Focus 1hr 25min 05.9sec 8. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 25min 09.3sec 9. B Thiry/S Prevot B Toyota Corolla 1hr 25min 27.6sec 10 M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 25min 58.3sec