Consistent Duval targets podium place Down Under BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers FranÃ§ois Duval and StÃ©phane PrÃ©vot ended today's opening leg of Rally Australia with their sights set on a podium finish on Sunday afternoon. They lie fourth...
Consistent Duval targets podium place Down Under
BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers François Duval and Stéphane Prévot ended today's opening leg of Rally Australia with their sights set on a podium finish on Sunday afternoon. They lie fourth on this final round of the FIA World Rally Championship in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, after a long day's competition on slippery gravel tracks in Western Australia.
Team-mates Markko Märtin and Michael Park were chasing their third consecutive victory in a Castrol-branded Focus RS following wins last month in France and Spain. However, engine problems brought their event to a premature end early this morning.
Following last night's spectacular super special stage at the Gloucester Park trotting track on the edge of Perth, the action switched south this morning. Drivers faced a 160km journey for speed tests clustered around Stirling Reservoir and Murray River, before returning for stages just to the east of the city. The leg ended with two more tests at Gloucester Park, where large crowds again gathered to watch two cars at a time tackle the purpose-built floodlit test. In total drivers tackled 133.27km of competition.
Unseasonably cool and wet weather left the roads damp, with the odd mud patch waiting to trap the unwary. The roads are unique in that they are covered by millions of tiny ball-bearing like stones, which especially hinder the front-runners who sweep them clear to leave a cleaner line for those behind. The rain helped bind together much of the loose gravel to ensure the disadvantage was not as marked as usual, but the mud and water guaranteed conditions were still extremely slippery.
Showers were forecast for this morning and Duval chose a soft set-up on his Focus RS with that in mind. However, they failed to materialise and the Belgian was initially unhappy with the set-up. "It was a difficult start," said the 23-year-old Belgian. "The set-up of the car felt too soft and I wasn't happy with it. There was little we could do to alter it, so our springs and tyres were too soft all morning. With no gravel crews allowed, we had no warning of where the water was so it was quite difficult."
However, he settled into fifth and climbed to fourth in late morning, ending the day with fastest time on the final stage. "I changed the suspension settings and I found that made a big improvement," he added. "It was hard because I don't know these stages so well. But we re-wrote our pace notes in the recce and they are a big improvement on last year, although I think it needs another season before they are perfect.
"There was a lot of loose gravel and our road position meant there weren't too many clean lines. Given our road position tomorrow, I think it will be the same. I will continue at the same pace and rhythm because it's not necessary to take risks and I need as much experience of these roads as possible to learn for the future," added Duval.
Märtin and Park encountered engine problems on the last corner of last night's super special stage when it lapsed onto three cylinders and the oil pressure dipped. They re-started this morning but engineers diagnosed serious piston damage at the early morning service and they retired in the service park.
"There is no indication of what caused the problem and we won't know that until we return to Britain and examine the engine in greater detail," said BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson. "I'm disappointed because Markko had the opportunity to finish second in the drivers' championship, and match Ford's runners-up spot in the manufacturers' series.
"Francois' car has run troublefree today. He is coming to terms with the difficult driving conditions that this event presents and he is in a strong position tonight," added Wilson.
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Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) took the lead on the opening stage and was never headed. The Finn was fastest on five tests to end the leg 21.4sec ahead of Sebastien Loeb (Citroen). The Frenchman was first on the road in the most slippery conditions, but admitted that the damp weather meant loose gravel was not as much of a problem as usual. Petter Solberg (Subaru) was Grönholm's closest challenger initially but the Norwegian hit a rock on the fourth stage, breaking the steering arm and going off the road into retirement. Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) climbed to third and remained there, despite clipping some trees and overshooting a junction this morning. Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) challenged Duval hard until brake problems caused the Finn to hit a tree stump and break his car's power steering on stage seven. Double world champion Carlos Sainz was a pre-event casualty when the Spaniard crashed into a tree during practice and injured his neck. He withdrew from what was scheduled to be his last rally before retirement.
The second leg is based east of Perth and covers 127.15km of competition. After leaving the city at 08.00, drivers face eight speed tests close to the small town of Mundaring, before two final stages at the Gloucester Park trotting track on the edge of Perth. Cars enter the final overnight halt at 20.02.