Colin McRae and Nicky Grist delighted their army of British fans by leading the Rally of Great Britain in their Ford Focus World Rally Car after today's wet and slippery opening leg. Ford Martini team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya lie third in their Focus after a gruelling day's competition in mud-spattered Wales.
The seven gravel forest stages in the mountains of south and mid-Wales were in treacherous condition after several days of heavy rain. More wet weather during the day failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the thousands of spectators eager to see this final round of the FIA World Rally Championship, but ensured few drivers escaped some kind of mishap on the slimy mud.
McRae and Grist quickly stamped their authority on the rally during the morning stages by moving into the lead but spins on both the Crychan and Halfway tests dropped them to second. However, as darkness descended on the dank and gloomy Hafren and Myherin forest stages, the 32-year-old Scottish driver posted fastest time on both tests to move into a 19.7sec lead.
Thousands of fans gathered at the famous Sweet Lamb watersplash in Hafren Forest and as news of McRae's blistering performances came through, his fans sent fireworks soaring into the night sky in celebration.
"I'm delighted to be leading tonight," he said. "The Focus has run well all day and I was very happy with my performances on the two stages in darkness this evening where we were much faster than our rivals. I have no pressure and I'm enjoying driving at 100 per cent on roads I like without taking chances.
"I'm determined to win the rally to end the year on a high note and at the moment we can lead without taking chances. But we have another two days that are equally as tough as today so there are many difficulties still to overcome," he added.
Sainz and Moya settled into third this morning but two off-road excursions dropped them to seventh. However, third fastest time through both Hafren and Myherin promoted the Spanish duo to third, 51.3sec behind McRae.
"Today has been difficult," said Madrid-based Sainz. "We've been off the road several times due to the mud but the car has run perfectly. Tomorrow will be just as difficult as today and I hope my confidence will increase because I've been lacking a little in confidence in these slippery conditions."
Tapio Laukkanen and Kaj Lindström, driving the third Ford-entered Focus lie 11th, the Finns, like most others, suffering their share of spins. A new gearbox was fitted after Laukkanen reported problems with first and second gear during the morning but the 1999 British champion was happy with his day's work, apart from the final two stages on which he felt he should have attacked more.
Michelin's tyres performed well in the slippery conditions. McRae and Sainz tried a new evolution compound tyre before turning to narrower rubber later on to provide the best possible grip and traction in the mud.
Ulsterman Stephen Finlay and Ireland's Rory Kennedy held a strong 18th in their privately-entered Focus until they clipped a tree in the Crychan test. The impact ripped off a rear wheel and sent the car plunging backwards into a ravine. The duo were unhurt but out of the rally.
Richard Burns' (Subaru) world title hopes suffered an early setback when the Briton clipped a logpile on the day's first stage, damaging the left rear suspension. He struggled through the following two stages with a misaligned wheel, losing around a minute, before reaching the sanctuary of the service park. Championship rival Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) led briefly after McRae's time loss and his only problem during an impressive day came on the penultimate stage when he hit a sheep. Team-mates Francois Delecour and Gilles Panizzi lost time with several spins and a puncture respectively. Petter Solberg (Subaru) dropped four minutes after sliding off the road, the same fate befalling team-mate Juha Kankkunen although the time loss was considerably less. Didier Auriol (Seat) provided delight for his team on their final rally by running as high as third before ending the leg in sixth. Early retirements included Kenneth Eriksson (Hyundai) with engine failure and Freddy Loix (Mitsubishi) who rolled heavily on stage two.
Most of the second leg is contained within the mountain forests of the Rhondda Valley and the Vale of Neath. Drivers face five stages there before a repeat of the super special stage in the heart of Cardiff with started the rally yesterday evening. They cover 166.42km of competition, including the daunting 46.45km Resolfen, the longest test of the rally. The rally leaves Cardiff at 06.25, returning for the final overnight halt at 18.36. <pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 1hr 15min 40.0sec 2. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 15min 59.7sec 3. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 16min 31.3sec 4. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 16min 32.6sec 5. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 16min 38.3sec 6. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Seat Cordoba 1hr 16min 40.8sec 7. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 17min 04.4sec 8. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 1hr 17min 12.2sec 9. G Panizzi/H Panizzi F Peugeot 206 1hr 17min 24.4sec 10. M Martin/M Park EE Toyota Corolla 1hr 17min 24.5sec