Ford Focus wins four out of six on first day in Spain

BP-Ford World Rally Team won four of the six speed tests on today's opening leg of the Rally Catalunya in Spain during a thrilling battle for supremacy at the head of the leaderboard. Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot claimed three victories in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, with team-mates Markko Martin and Michael Park taking the other win en route to second overall in another Focus RS.

The BP-Ford drivers quickly found the same pace with which the Focus RS dominated the Rallye de France two weeks ago. Duval twice led this 15th, and penultimate round, of the FIA World Rally Championship before breaking his car's front left suspension on the final speed test. The damage was such that he had to retire on the liaison section back to the service park.

The fight between Duval, Martin and Sebastien Loeb at the top of the leaderboard was so intense that the lead changed hands three times. Only once did any of the trio pull out an advantage of more than two seconds, and Martin's Castrol-branded Focus RS returned to the rally base in Lloret de Mar tonight just 2.0sec behind leader Loeb.

The mountains north of Barcelona are the setting for this all-asphalt rally. Drivers today faced two identical loops of three speed tests just north of the town of Vic, covering 115.04km. Overnight rain made the smooth asphalt slippery this morning, but the forecast rain failed to materialise and conditions were drier this afternoon. Michelin's soft compound dry weather tyres were the choice of the BP-Ford drivers throughout, both having small cuts carved into the rubber for the afternoon special stages in expectation of wetter weather.

Martin and Park were consistently fast all day, repeating the pace that took them to victory in Corsica earlier this month. They ended the opening loop in third, just 1.1sec from the lead, after two second fastest times and one third. "Conditions were changeable," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "Tyre choice and car set-up was a bit of a gamble. In some areas you gained, while in others you lost time. I'm not sure there was a perfect tyre choice but I was happy with my selection. On the dry roads I couldn't match Loeb but in the wet I had the advantage."

Top three results on the next two stages preceded fastest time on the final test. "I was lucky because about 7km from the end of the last stage I cut a corner and damaged the front left tyre," said Martin. "I heard a big bang and still don't know what I hit, although I expect it was a rock. I'm grateful to Michelin because its mousse system kept the tyre inflated and I lost no time. I ended the stage with a big bulge in the tyre but it kept working perfectly.

"It has been a nine out of 10 day, and tomorrow I want it to be 10 out of 10. It's been an exciting three-way battle and it's a shame that Francois had to retire. The car has been really good but I think the last five per cent of the package has not been working quite as well as it did in Corsica. I will sit and think tonight, and try to work out what and why that is," added Martin.

Duval led after the first stage. However, the 23-year-old Belgian's car side-swiped the timing structure at the finish, knocking part of the bodywork onto his car's rear right tyre. With no time to examine the damage before the following test, Duval drove the 21.90kms with the bodywork snagging on the rubber. He dropped more than 10 seconds in setting eighth fastest time.

However, he was able to pull the bodywork clear before the final 22.55km stage of the loop and raced to fastest time. He returned to service in second overall, just 1.0sec behind Loeb. "Conditions were slippery and difficult, but that was good for me," said Duval. "I enjoy those conditions. I didn't take too many risks. It was a pity to lose time on the second stage but fortunately I was able to regain it on the next test."

Duval regained the lead with his third fastest time on the next test but his hopes ended 5km from the finish of the final stage. "I'm not sure whether I cut a corner too much or not enough, but I hit a rock which broke the front left suspension. I stopped briefly and then continued to the end of the stage, losing about 90 seconds. We tried to make repairs so that we could drive back to the service park, but there was nothing we could do and we had to retire," he said.

News from our Rivals

New world champion Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) was the only challenger to the Ford Focus duo. The Frenchman was fastest on the middle stage of each loop and leads Martin by 2.0sec. He spun and stalled his car's engine on stage three and damaged the steering after hitting a rock on the final stage. Team-mate Carlos Sainz lies fourth, despite engine troubles on the final test, the Spaniard lying 18.9sec behind third-placed Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot). Gronholm's team-mate, Freddy Loix, retired with a broken alternator in the third stage. Petter Solberg (Subaru) spun on the same test and also struggled with a faulty intercom, which cut out intermittently on the second and third stages. Gilles Panizzi (Mitsubishi) was third this morning but a bad tyre choice, when the Frenchman chose wet weather tyres for the dry afternoon stages, cost large chunks of time and he slipped to 13th. The only other major retirement was Jan Kopecky (Skoda) who broke his car's suspension after hitting a rock on the final stage.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg is the longest of the rally, covering 162.88km of competition close to Vic. Drivers leave Lloret de Mar at 06.00 and tackle two identical loops of four speed tests, divided by service in Vic. There is also a short tyre and refuel zone in Vic after the third stage of each loop, with limited opportunity for teams to work on their cars. Competitors return to Lloret de Mar for the final overnight halt at 19.31.

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