The first full day of competition at Telstra Rally Australia got off to a dramatic start with the retirement of Ford driver Markko Martin before the day's first stage even began. Martin and the Ford team would have suffered an anxious sleep ...
The first full day of competition at Telstra Rally Australia got off to a dramatic start with the retirement of Ford driver Markko Martin before the day's first stage even began. Martin and the Ford team would have suffered an anxious sleep overnight. The Estonian's Focus WRCar dropped to three cylinders at the last corner of last night's Gloucester Park Super Special Stage. In this morning's ten minute service, the team were unable to make the necessary repairs to allow him to continue and Martin was forced to retire. Martin's retirement would have allowed Petter Solberg to enjoy a more comfortable rally as the two were fighting for second place in the FIA World Rally Championship driver's title fight with only three points between them. Solberg was lying in second place overall when Martin retired. But the Norwegian's luck was to be shortlived when on SS4 he hit a small rock not in his pace notes, broke a steering arm and ended his rally. Ever philosophical, Solberg said he was looking forward to running tomorrow's stages under the SuperRally regulations which allow drivers to continue to drive the stages, but not be counted in the results. In contrast, the Peugeot team has enjoyed a trouble-free rally, with Marcus Gronholm, the rally leader, saying it had been a near perfect day and his team mate, Harri Rovanpera, enjoying being back in competitive form after a few month's away from the special stages. The Production Car battle was fierce with Alistair McRae ending the day with a comfortable 56.8 second lead over Jani Paasonen.
After running first on the road throughout the opening leg, Xsara WRC crew Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena figure in a strong 2nd place this evening in Perth, a little over 20 seconds behind Marcus Gronholm. The withdrawal of Carlos Sainz from the event following his accident during recce has left a big void. However, staff from all the WRC teams joined together after yesterday evening's pre-start parade for a long ovation to show their esteem for the Spaniard and their disappointment at not being able to see him in action one last
Sebastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: "I had a bit of a problem with oversteer through the faster corners so I will fine-tune my rear shock absorber settings and switch to an alternative differential mapping. As far as sweeping the stages is concerned, my road position is naturally a handicap but I honestly can't say exactly how much it cost me. I think my tyre choice for the first loop of stages was good. I chose the soft '8' compound and a significantly re-cut pattern to facilitate clearing the small, loose stones."
Carlos Sainz / Marc Marti: Did not start
Subaru's Petter Solberg secured second place in the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship for Driver's today, despite losing the chance to end the season with a sixth WRC win. Pushing for victory from the outset, the Norwegian made a perfect start before a damaged steering rod brought his competitive event to a premature end. His young Finnish team-mate Mikko Hirvonen holds overnight fifth place after a determined effort aboard his Subaru Impreza WRC2004.
Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: "It's too bad, I didn't want to end the season like this, but that's just how it is sometimes. Before the incident on SS4 things had started well and I had a good feeling about the event, but we were pushing hard and after the impact there wasn't anything we could do. The damage was actually very little so it was good to get back out in time for the Super Special this evening. It was good to be driving again, it's a great atmosphere here in Australia there's so much support from the fans and I'm really pleased we've secured second in the Drivers' World Championship."
Mikko Hirvonen / Jarmo Lehtinen: "It's been quite a tough day, especially with the brake problems on the later stages, but when things worked well I was getting more confident on the stages and that helped a lot. Now that we've established a good base set up with the car I'm looking to carry on the progression tomorrow, I'm looking forward to it."
Ford World Rally Team drivers Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot 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 Martin 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.
Markko Martin / Michael Park: Retired with engine problem
Francios Duval / Stephane Prevot: "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."
Peugeot driver Marcus Gronholm ends the first leg of Rally Australia in the lead, while his team mate Harri Rovanpera is in third place. Both Peugeot drivers enjoyed perfect reliability all day, to stamp their authority on the final round of the 2004 World Rally Championship.
Marcus Gronholm / Timo Rautiainen: "I'm very happy with the way that things have gone today, which is a tribute to all the hard work that the entire team has put into the development of our new 307 WRC. We've been trying to go at a sensible pace all day: pushing quite hard but not taking any stupid risks either. Apart from that there is very little to report - we just have to try and do the same again tomorrow. Of course it would be fantastic to end the season with a victory, but it is much too early to even start thinking about that."
Harri Rovanpera / Risto Pietilainen: It's been a very good day. Although I missed the last two rallies I've felt very confident with my car and I have been able to attack. I still think that there is a little more to come and I hope to be able to show that during leg two tomorrow. But it has been important to get the rally off to a good start and we have succeeded in doing that. The car has also been very reliable, so I definitely have a good feeling on a rally I have always liked!"
The current weather forecast for Perth over the rally weekend is for light showers clearing on Friday and mostly sunny conditions in the low 20's during the event. If the cooler weather of the week clears earlier temperatures up to 30 degrees may be experienced.