AFTER his first full day of world championship rallying - competing in the Perth-based Telstra Rally Australia - ex-Formula One driver Erik Comas says simply: "Now I admire rally drivers even more!"
The 35-year-old Frenchman had a difficult initiation into the World Rally Championship today when he discovered early on that the pace-notes he and navigator Jean Paul Terrasse had made during their recce were "not accurate enough."
Comas - an accomplished circuit racer who competed in F1 for four years and has been a champion in classes as diverse as GTs, Formula 3000 and touring cars - was thus forced to drive his Loctite Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 6 more conservatively than he wanted to.
Nevertheless he finished the day's nine dry, dusty and slippery stages in a creditable 14th place in the fiercely-competitive Group N production car class and 32nd overall.
"Because the pace notes were not right, the precision was missing from my driving - a lot on the braking distances and also on the lines between corners.
"Also it was so slippery today - I had to be careful. It was my first day driving the Loctite Evo 6 and I wanted to learn how to drive the car and I wanted to learn how to drive the ball-bearing-surface roads."
Despite the enforced caution, the French pair steadily improved their standing during the day's forest stages in the Mundaring region northeast of Perth. They were 44th outright (and 18th in Group N) overnight, after Rally Australia's spectacular opening stage, run in a central city park.
By the end of today they were running just outside the top 30 on stages and - in the outright standings. The Loctite Mitsubishi is within two minutes of the three Group N cars immediately ahead - just 19.5 seconds behind Italian driver Nicola Caldani's similar car.
And back in Perth - in the end-of-day run over the same Langley Park super-special stage that started the rally - Erik and Jean Paul put the finishing touches to a solid first day with an unofficial time that was 4s faster than their stage one clocking.
"I'm happy - it was a good learning day," says Comas, who describes his late interest in rallying as "living out a dream.
"And we did get better and better as the day went on.
"I know that tomorrow I will do a much better job. The Bridgestone tyres are working very well and now we have adjusted the dampers on the car, I feel like I can push a little bit more."
Comas' Loctite team-mates, Belgian brothers Bob and Tom Colsoul, had a day of mixed fortunes - a puncture on stage five forcing a tyre change.that went wrong: The jack jammed and they lost more than seven minutes - dropping to 73rd place on the stage.
But they came back to run as high as 26th outright on one stage - 12th in Group N. They go into tomorrow's Leg 2 in 48th place and 22nd in Group N.
Tomorrow, Finnish veteran Juha Kankkunen in a works Subaru Impreza WRC will lead the field of 60-odd survivors into 141 kilometres of competition south of Perth, in seven special stages.
Kankkunen holds a 9.6s lead on Comas' countryman Francois Delecour in a Peugeot 206 WRC. Defending world champion Tommi Makinen is next in his Mitsubishi, 4s behind, with Subaru's Richard Burns fourth, another 7.8s back.
Uruguayan Gustavo Trelles leads Group N in 16th place outright, in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6.