Ford Martini duo in top three on Rally New Zealand
Auckland's famous America's Cup yachting village provided the backdrop for the start of the Rally New Zealand this afternoon, as Ford Martini World Rally Team drivers Colin McRae and Thomas Rådstrom set sail on the four-day event, ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Today's only competitive action was at the Manukau Super Special on the edge of the city. Large crowds braved heavy rain to watch the floodlit 2.1km test where two cars at a time raced over a muddy purpose-built track.
Rådstrom and co-driver Fred Gallagher were second fastest in their Ford Focus World Rally Car, just 0.3 sec behind New Zealander Possum Bourne. Team-mates McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist were third in the second Focus, 0.5 sec behind Rådstrom. "Some of the corners were slippery but we expected that and tried to keep a tight and neat line. The car feels great and we're looking forward to tomorrow," said Rådstrom.
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Behind surprise leader Bourne (Subaru) and the Ford Martini duo, Harri Rovanpera (Seat) was fourth with Subaru pair Juha Kankkunen and Richard Burns completing the top six, covered by just 1.3 sec. Championship leader Tommi Makinen was 10th. Didier Auriol had an early scare when his Toyota refused to start following a regroup after the start. After pushing the car out of the time control and tracing the problem to a lack of power in the fuel pump, Auriol eventually left 12 minutes late but regained the time to arrive at the stage on schedule and escape time penalties. He lies 13th.
Competitors face almost 15 hours on the road as the opening leg continues with a cluster of stages on the west coast of North Island around the town of Raglan. They leave Auckland at 05.45 and return at 20.25 after eight gravel stages and a repeat of the Manukau super special, covering almost 140km in a total route of 620km. With the forecast promising rain, drivers can expect the forest roads to be muddy and slippery.
Nicky Grist: "The first stage in the morning will be a real barometer for the rest of the rally. It's the longest of the day at over 31km and will give a clear indication of who is likely to be in contention as it's so typical of many of the stages on this rally."