Today's opening leg of the Rally Australia was dominated by tactics as Ford Martini drivers Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were just one of several leading pairings who spent the final kilometres jockeying for the most favourable re-start position tomorrow morning.
The overnight seeding positions were based on the placings after the penultimate speed test along a 4.42km forest road. In almost surreal circumstances for a world championship rally, Sainz and Moya were among four top pairings who deliberately lost time to guarantee they begin the second leg further down the order but with better road conditions.
In so doing, they allow the early cars to sweep the liberal covering of loose gravel from the roads, ensuring a much cleaner and therefore faster run through the stages.
As a result of the tactical manoeuvres, Sainz ended the leg in eighth in his Ford Focus World Rally Car, the last of those in contention for the drivers' world title and the one likely to benefit most from the cleaner roads. The 38-year-old Madrid-based driver spent much of the day in third, comfortable with his pace over the slippery gravel tracks east of Perth.
However, he was unhappy at having to adopt such tactics. "It's strange that on a world championship rally we find ourselves in the position of deliberately losing time to gain a better running position tomorrow. The fastest drivers are being penalised. Last year on this rally the quickest drivers were able to choose their re-start positions for the following day. It worked well then but the idea is not being used this year," he said.
Ford Martini team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist made a good start, the British pair settling into a comfortable fifth after five stages. They were happy to keep in close touch with the cars ahead, without wishing to move higher so as to benefit from the conditions lying in wait down the order tomorrow.
However, 7km from the finish of the 20km Flynns Short stage, the engine of their Focus lost oil pressure. They dropped two minutes nursing the car to the finish but the engine stopped for good during the liaison section to service.
"The engine went tight going into a corner but immediately afterwards it felt OK," said 32-year-old McRae. "But 200m later it dropped onto three cylinders and there was nothing we could do. We had no warning it was going to happen and it was the last thing we expected as the car had been so reliable.
"We've worked so hard this year and were determined to have a good run in Australia to set up a great finish to the year on the final round of the series in Britain. Now, in championship terms, it's not looking too good for us, so we must wait and see what happens here," he added.
Tapio Laukkanen and Kaj Lindstrom, driving a third Focus World Rally Car, ended the day in sixth. The Finns excelled to post second fastest time on the sixth stage on only their second world championship rally in a four-wheel drive car. Apart from a couple of half spins, one which damaged his car's gearbox after he missed a gear while re-starting, Laukkanen has been most impressive.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson said early investigation suggested a damaged piston caused the problem with McRae's engine but the reason for the damage would not be known until a more detailed inspection had taken place.
"It's disappointing to lose Colin so early," he added. "He was driving exactly to plan and things were looking good. Carlos has enjoyed a troublefree day, driving at a pace which was comfortable and which suited him. Road position is the most crucial factor on this rally and the tactics we saw today will be repeated again towards the end of the second leg tomorrow evening. It's probably fair to say the serious competition on this rally will start for real on the final morning."
News from our Rivals
It was a bad day for birthday boys Freddy Loix (Mitsubishi) and Markko Martin (Subaru). Loix, 30 today, retired on stage three with broken transmission. Martin, celebrating his 25th birthday and on his debut for the team, retired in the previous test with drive failure following a fire en route to the stage. Team-mate Petter Solberg was the only other major retirement after going off the road. Series leader Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) led until tactics came into play with team-mate Francois Delecour always in the top five. The main beneficiary, at least on paper, of the tactics was Juha Kankkunen (Subaru) who led Delecour by 9.6sec while team-mate Richard Burns held back in the lower regions of the top 10 until the 'games' began.
Drivers face a long journey south to Harvey around which all but one of the day's seven stages are based. The leg ends with a final run around Perth's riverside Langley Park. After re-starting at 06.00, competitors will tackle 141km of stages in a route of almost 700km before arriving back in Perth at 20.21. Features of the day are the 45.42km Wellington Dam, the longest of the rally, and the 35.48km Stirling East.
<pre> Leader board after Leg 1 1. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 27min 17.2sec 2. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 1hr 27min 26.8sec 3. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 27min 30.9sec 4. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 27min 38.7sec 5. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 27min 40.7sec 6. T Laukkanen/K Lindstrom FIN Ford Focus 1hr 27min 52.2sec 7. T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Seat Cordoba 1hr 28min 01.0sec 8. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 28min 12.6sec 9. P Bourne/C Vincent NZ Subaru Impreza 1hr 28min 19.1sec 10 K Eriksson/S Parmander S Hyundai Accent 1hr 28min 24.7sec