Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist held a strong third overall after a dramatic opening leg of the Telstra Rally Australia today. The overnight leaders kept their Ford Focus World Rally Car firmly in contention at the top of the leaderboard throughout another sun-drenched day by posting a string of searing times over the demanding gravel tracks in Western Australia.
After holding a comfortable second place throughout the morning, McRae and Grist powered their Focus back into the lead of this 13th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship during the early afternoon. They set two fastest and six second quickest special stage times during the leg before several time-consuming incidents dropped them to third - but still well in contention with two days remaining.
Roads made slippery by millions of ball-bearing like stones on top of a solid base took their toll on several drivers, including McRae. On the day's longest test, the 34km Flynns, the 31-year-old Scot attacked in a bid to extend his lead. Twice he overshot junctions and completed a 360º spin but amazingly still posted fourth fastest time.
However, the biggest blow came on the next stage, the 30km Helena, when a front right puncture cost 50 seconds. "We came over a crest and felt a big bang at the front but I'm not sure whether we clipped a hole or an upturned rock. The tyre went soft for about 2km then started to break up and I drove for 13km like that," explained McRae.
"But today has been good. The new specification engine we're using for the first time is very good on the faster sections. On the twistier parts I have to keep the revs high to get the best out of it but it's a big improvement. Tomorrow's stages are more flowing than those of today but still very fast so I'm feeling confident," he added.
Ford Martini team-mates Thomas Rådström and Fred Gallagher performed well on their debut in Australia to hold eighth in the other Ford Focus. Two overshoots cost time but they escaped further trouble after collecting a double puncture on the Helena test when Michelin's ATS mousse system kept both tyres inflated.
"It's been difficult for me because it's the first time I've competed on this rally. The trees seem very close to the edge of the road and it's quite difficult to pick a driving line so I've had to alter my style slightly to compensate," said the 33-year-old Swedish driver.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson believes McRae's top three position, 50.2sec behind leader Carlos Sainz, was a reward for some committed driving.
"Colin had the event under control until he spun. He is so keen to finish strongly after recent disappointments that he's driven with fire and aggression and both cars have run faultlessly," said Wilson. "Thomas has done well and I think he's realised how technical this event is. He could have been in big problems after his punctures, but we must give credit to Michelin because although the rubber was virtually sliced open, the mousse kept both tyres inflated. In fact Thomas completed two more stages with one of the tyres still on the car and was no less competitive."
News from our Rivals
The destiny of the drivers' world title swung firmly in Tommi Mäkinen's favour when the only two drivers capable of beating him retired. Closest rival Didier Auriol (Toyota) snatched an early lead with fastest time on today's first three stages but retired after his car developed a handling problem and he crashed into a tree. The time loss was small, but the impact broke the radiator and oil cooler and the engine was too badly damaged to continue. Juha Kankkunen (Subaru), whose hopes were extremely slim, went out after hitting a tree stump in the opening kilometre of stage five and ripping off his front left wheel. Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) did not escape the troubles, the Finn losing his lead after puncturing at the same point as McRae and plunging to fourth. SEAT duo Toni Gardemeister and Harri Rovanperä enjoyed a good day, the only trouble arising when Rovanperä was held up in the dust of a previous competitor and lost 90 seconds. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) lost 2min 30sec in the same incident while team-mate Francois Delecour retired after the final test after breaking two gearboxes.
The second leg, which takes competitors south of Perth, is the most demanding of all. The drivers leave the city at 06.00 for eight stages, seven on dusty gravel roads before a third and final spell of action at the city centre Langley Park test. They face more than 160km of stages in a total route of almost 673km, including the 45km Wellington Dam, one of the longest in the championship. They arrive back in Perth at 20.20.
Key Stage Nicky Grist: "Wellington Dam is the longest test of the entire event. If the leading cars are still covered by a handful of seconds, this stage could well sort things out with bigger time gaps emerging. If you hit trouble early in this stage, you are sure to lose a lot of time because of the sheer length and the only answer is to struggle on."
Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 1hr 17min 21.4sec 2. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 17min 27.7sec 3. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 1hr 18min 11.6sec 4. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmäki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 18min 40.1sec 5. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 1hr 19min 02.5sec 6. T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Seat WRC 1hr 19min 12.4sec 7. H Rovanperä/R Pietilainen FIN Seat WRC 1hr 20min 18.9sec 8. T Rådström/ F Gallagher S Ford Focus 1hr 20min 49.1sec 9. N Bates/C Taylor AUS Toyota Corolla 1hr 21min 09.5sec 10 M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 21min 49.7sec