A dramatic day accounted for several top drivers. The biggest was world champion Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) who had just edged into the lead when he crashed into a tree near the end of stage nine. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) retired on a liaison section for the third rally in a row when his front suspension collapsed on stage seven and the police stopped him as he attempted to return to the Perth service park. Team-mate Daniel Carlsson crashed on today's opening stage and his car caught fire and burned out. Neither Carlsson nor co-driver Mattias Andersson were injured. Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson (both Subaru) each led early this morning but Atkinson dropped more than 2min 30sec after breaking a steering arm. Solberg moved ahead when Loeb crashed and leads Fran0x00e7ois Duval (Citroen) by 46.6sec. Colin McRae (Skoda) drove superbly and made the most of a cleaner road position to hold third, 15.5sec ahead of Harri Rovanper0x00e4 (Mitsubishi).
Temperatures ranged from 10 C to 22 C. The day was mainly sunny with little cloud, although some early morning stages were damp with dew.
The second leg contains some of the most spectacular tests of the season. Cars head south-east of Perth to Bannister Plantation, where the famous roller-coaster Bunnings jumps and water splash provide superb action for photographers and TV crews. After five stages at Bannister, competitors return for a repeat of today's afternoon tests before two last stages at the Gloucester Park super special. Drivers leave Perth at 07.35 and return at 20.22 after 122.34km of competition.
Citroen already have the 2005 Manufacturers and Drivers titles wrapped up. But none the less there was dissapointment when Sebastien Loeb positioned second retired after sliding into a tree on the final country stage of leg 1. Francois Duval was placed third going into the night time super special stage, but was able to overhaul Colin Mcrae and holds overnight second.
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena: Retired
Francois Duval/Sven Smeets: Early during the day Duval although happy with his performance was still coming to grips with the Australian surface: ".. Braking sometimes is bad because of the loose surface.". SS6: "Engine stalled at hairpin [turn], but was ok." SS8: "Really difficult, I have changed settings, but will change it back for tomorrow." Final comments: "Happy with the place today"
Subaru World Rally Team driver Petter Solberg holds the overnight lead of Rally Australia tonight after a trouble-free run on the first Leg of the competition. He set top five times throughout the day and won three stages. With two days of the rally remaining Solberg lies more than 45secs ahead of second-placed Fran0x00e7ois Duval. In front of his home crowd Subaru's young gun Chris Atkinson showed his star potential by taking four stage wins and taking the lead of the event in the morning. Unfortunately Chris's run of success was interrupted by a damaged steering arm on SS6 but with his car back to full strength he mounted a spirited recovery on the latter stages and is looking to make more progress back up the leaderboard over the coming days.
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: It's been great fun out there today, better than I expected actually, the car and tyres have been perfect and I'm really enjoying myself. In Japan we saw how much of a step we'd made on gravel and today it's felt good to be fighting for the lead again - that's what we're here for. Running second on the road today there was lots of loose gravel about and it was extremely slippery and easy to make a mistake and spin. We pushed where we could, but the main objective was to get through cleanly and get a better road position for tomorrow's Leg. We've done that now and I think we'll be able to enjoy ourselves over the next couple of days!
Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: We've certainly had some highs and some lows today. Things started perfectly, the car felt just right and Glenn and I were feeling pretty happy at the regroup after SS5, but on the next stage all the good work was undone by the damaged steering arm. It was especially disappointing in front of a home crowd, but there wasn't anything Glenn or I could do to fix it before service. Since then we've been right back on the pace and I'm determined to make as much of the next couple of days as I can. We've seen today that a lot can happen on these roads, they're great fun to drive but they always seem to bring a few surprises, so who knows what place we can get back to? We're back up to 100 percent and the car seems to suit the conditions perfectly, we'll do the best we can.
The all-new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car made an instant impact during its first public appearance on Rally Australia today. The early signs were hugely encouraging with Gardemeister claiming second fastest time at the super special stage at Perth's Gloucester Park trotting track, which began the action yesterday evening. The 30-year-old Finn added a third fastest time on the slippery gravel roads more than 100km south of the Western Australia capital of Perth, where this morning's speed tests were based. Twice Kresta was fourth fastest and both Focus RS drivers were in the top three overall on stage times during the morning loop. However, both Kresta and Gardemeister were last night handed a 30 second time penalty for not starting the event with the same engine with which they finished the Rally Japan in the 2005- specification Focus RS (Japan and Australia are paired for engine purposes). Ironically, had that engine been fitted to the new 2006 Focus RS, the team would also have been liable for a penalty for using an engine which is no longer homologated. With the penalties added, Gardemeister ended the leg in seventh, 9.2sec ahead of Kresta in eighth.
Toni Gardemeister/Jakke Honkanen: "It feels very good but I need time to get used to it," he said. "It's different to drive compared with the previous Focus and I need to get used to the feeling between the ground and the car. It brakes and handles superbly and there is more grip at the rear of the car. It's really powerful at low revs." Gardemeister lost more than 20 seconds after sliding off the road on the day's final bush test. "Halfway through the stage I started to slide and ended up going over a bank and into some small trees. Perhaps I was going too fast and the surface was loose. I've had a lot of dust coming into the car this afternoon and it was hard to see in places," he added.
Roman Kresta/Jan Mozny: "It's fantastic!" said 30-year-old Kresta, whose performance was remarkable considering he has never competed in Australia before. "It feels like I'm driving slowly, like I've taken the car shopping, but the engine is so good that I'm driving really quickly. I have a good feeling with it, although it feels totally different to the previous Focus RS and I need to forget everything I learned about that car. It hasn't been easy though. The roads are slippery and I'm driving a new car on a new rally for me and trying to perfect my pace notes as well. That's a lot to think about at the same time!" Kresta dropped 25 seconds in a bizarre incident on stage eight. "I landed after a jump and my door came open and the window dropped at the same time. As I tried to close the door, I missed a junction and swiped a bank. I had so much dust come into the car through the window that I could not see for the rest of the stage," he explained.
The first leg of the Rally Australia proved to be the very last for the Peugeot Total team, who lost both cars on the opening morning. Marcus Gronholm broke his front- right suspension on SS7, while Daniel Carlsson went off the road a kilometre and a half after the start of SS3. Marcus was in third place and just eight seconds off the lead despite two punctures, when he felt his front-right suspension collapse. He finished the stage, losing more than a minute, but stopped on the road section back to service in Perth to try to fix the damage. Marcus managed to make running repairs using some nuts taken off the three undamaged shock absorbers, but one wheel was still rubbing against the arch. Unfortunately Australian police are unforgiving when it comes to traffic law enforcement, and with increasingly dense smoke coming from the affected wheel, they forced Marcus to end his rally on the spot.
Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: "On the preceding stage, I touched a rock on the apex of a corner. At the end of the stage I checked for damage, but the suspension seemed to be fine : there was just a bit of damage to a wheel. After 12 kilometres of the following stage the front-right suspension suddenly collapsed on a right-hand corner. I really do not understand what could have happened, as I did not feel anything at all. It's a real shame to end what has been a fantastic career at Peugeot like this. I really wanted to win here, in order to finish with a 19th victory !"
Daniel Carlsson/Mats Andersson: "It was the first time I was competing here and unfortunately the notes that I made during the recce were not correct. I arrived at a corner much too quickly and we started to roll. The car ended up on its wheels, but then it suddenly caught fire. We got out quickly before it went up completely."
Colin McRae made maximum use of his start position for the opening day of Rally Australia to complete the first leg in 3rd place. Colin's Skoda Motorsport World Rally Team partner Armin Schwarz finished 11th as he contests the final rally of his career. The roads of Western Australia offer a unique challenge to drivers. The 0x2858ball-bearing' surface gives a huge advantage to drivers running later on the road and Colin's 14th start slot was ideal to benefit from the 0x2858cleaning' process. After a cautious start to to- day's first forest stage while he reacquainted him- self with the Fabia WRC 05. Colin was second quickest on the next behind Chris Atkinson (and equal with Sebastien Loeb) to move into sixth place. He continued to set top 10 times and fourth place on SS7 took the Scot into third overall. When Loeb crashed out of the event on SS9, Colin moved up to second ahead of the superspecials that concluded the opening leg but in a close battle with Francois Duval. Armin survived a scare during yesterday's shakedown when he badly damaged the right rear of the Fabia WRC 05 against a tree stump. The mechanics did a superb job rebuilding the car to make it ready for last night's opening superspecial in the heart of the city.
Colin McRae/Nicky Grist: Today has gone completely to plan. I drove a bit too slowly on the opening stage but since then I've been able to push. The road position has obviously helped but the car has been fine too. If we can do the same tomorrow then who knows what sort of result is possible?
Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha: This is my final rally but I was so nervous before the start it might have been my first WRC event. The stages here are very tricky and it is so easy to make a mistake that I am not taking any risks and just trying to stay in the middle of the road.
The Mitsubishi Motorsport WRC team enjoyed a positive opening leg of Rally Australia, the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Harri Rovanper0x00e4 and Risto Pietil0x00e4inen hold a fine fourth overall in the lead Lancer WRC05, while team-mates Gigi Galli and Guido d'Amore are sixth overnight.
Harri Rovanpera/Risto Pietilainen: "It's been a long day and I've been trying to understand our new damper set-up," said Harri. "When the roads are fast, smooth and flowing, it's very good, but also I feel the grip level is not always so great. I really pushed in the last two forest stages and SS8 felt very good. We've had no technical problems and hopefully we can maintain the pace tomorrow."
Gigi Galli/Guido d'Amore: "It's a good start for us and I'm feeling happy with the set-up of the car," said Gigi. "I have to say we had some problems this morning with the engine misfire and then we hit something and damaged the steering. This afternoon has been fine, although we had a big moment in SS7 with the pace notes. Tires have been good, although we're still learning about Pirelli's evolution tire."