Ford Martini World Rally Team drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya provided thrilling entertainment for the 20,000 fans gathered in Perth's riverside Langley Park for the opening speed test of the Rally Australia this evening.
Their Ford Focus World Rally Cars were in spectacular form as they raced around the purpose-built 2.20km loose surface special stage in the heart of the city. As darkness fell, floodlights heightened the atmosphere in the grandstands as two cars at a time sped around the sweeping bends and over the towering jumps.
McRae posted fifth fastest time after an exciting head-to-head duel with Sainz, who was ninth. Tapio Laukkanen and Kaj Lindstrom, driving a third Ford-entered Focus World Rally Car, was seventh fastest as just 1.6sec covered the top 10 cars.
"It was a fun start to a very important rally," said McRae. "It's fantastic to see the fans having such a great time but we must forget about that now because the competition begins for real when we go into the forests in the morning. We've all got world championship titles to concentrate on."
The Western Australia event is the 13th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Ford Martini lies second in the manufacturers' series, just two points off the lead, while McRae and Sainz are two of the four drivers in the running for the drivers' crown.
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World championship leader Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) was fastest by just 0.7sec from team-mate Francois Delecour. Juha Kankkunen (Subaru), four-times winner of the rally, was tied for third with Didier Auriol (Seat). Petter Solberg (Subaru) was tied with McRae in fifth. None of the leading drivers suffered any problems.
The first leg, the longest of all, continues tomorrow with eight forest stages based around Mundaring, east of Perth, ending with a repeat of the Langley Park test. After leaving Perth at 09.00, drivers cover another 147.76km of competitive driving before returning to the city at 20.21.