16 July 1999
McRae leads Rally New Zealand before retiring
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist were forced to retire their Ford Focus World Rally Car from today's opening leg of the Rally New Zealand having just taken the lead of this ninth round of the FIA World Championship. The Ford Martini pairing set fastest time on three special stages during a thrilling battle for supremacy with series leader Tommi Makinen which left their other rivals trailing.
Heavy rain throughout the day made the gravel stages south of Auckland very slippery but McRae and Makinen shrugged aside the weather during their battle royale in which the gap between the pair never climbed above six seconds. McRae's third stage win lifted him into a lead of 1.3 sec over the Finn before his rally came to a premature end in the very next stage.
Ten kilometres after the start of the 29.52km test, the Ford Focus stopped.
The 30-year-old Scot fired up the engine but when it died for a second time, he was unable to restart it. "It's frustrating. The car was performing so well and we'd proved we had the set-up right for these stages. We'd had a little trouble with a misfire which we thought we'd cured but it came back and there was nothing we could do," he explained.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson said the cause of the retirement would not be known until engineers had examined the Focus. "We're bitterly disappointed for Colin. He had pushed so hard to lead and to retire was a blow for him and the whole team. We always expected development problems with a car that is still relatively new but it's frustrating that they happen when the car is going so well," he said.
Team-mates Thomas Rådstrom and Fred Gallagher ended the leg in sixth in the other Ford Focus, despite rolling heavily - an accident which left the car badly damaged cosmetically but mechanically sound. They recovered well and posted fastest time on the final stage tonight, a repeat of the Manukau Super Special.
The 33-year-old Swedish driver had settled into a comfortable sixth when a tightening bend on the fourth stage caught him out. "We came to a sweeping fast right-hand bend and the car slid wide," he explained. "The rear wheel clipped a bank, causing the car to flip onto its side and then onto the roof. It rolled over and ended up back on its wheels. Fred got out to look at the damage and saw that it was OK to carry on but the car handled badly for the rest of the stage because the impact broke a wheel."
The crew changed the wheel at the finish and were able to complete the next two stages before service without further difficulty. The Ford Martini team repaired as much of the panel damage as possible and Rådstrom continued in 10th position. Within three more stages, he had regained sixth.
"I think we were slightly unlucky with the accident but the car looks worse than it is," said Rådstrom. "We're lucky the car is so strong and despite the heavy impact we're fortunate it didn't damage the drivetrain or the chassis. Tomorrow's stages suit my driving style, the car still feels really good and I think we should be able to catch some of those in front of us."
News from our Rivals
It's been a tough day for the frontrunners. Richard Burns completed an unwanted British double by retiring his Subaru after six stages. Mechanics changed the gearbox after selection problems but soon afterwards the hydraulic pressure soared and the box dumped its oil. Carlos Sainz was leading the chase of Makinen and McRae until his Toyota jammed in first gear with 10km of stage nine remaining and he lost four minutes. Freddy Loix, competing in New Zealand for the first time, dropped a similar amount after the windscreen wipers failed on his Mitsubishi. Harri Rovanpera (Seat) suffered a similar problem but daylong differential problems were of more concern to the Finn. A puncture was the only trouble for both Didier Auriol (Toyota) and Makinen. Juha Kankkunen and Possum Bourne (both Subaru) enjoyed clear runs along with Toni Gardemeister, who impressed on his first world event in a World Rally Car.
Another long day lies in wait for the survivors. They leave Auckland at 07.00 for the northward drive to Maungaturoto, around which they will tackle 10 more gravel stages totalling 174km - the longest competitive day of the four-day event. They return to the city at 20.00 after a total route of 589km.
Fred Gallagher: "The final stage will be a test of the tyres and the set-up. Having completed three stages covering more than 50km without service, two of which are repeats, we must then tackle another 11km stage for a second time. That distance without the opportunity of changing tyres will put a premium on grip from tired rubber."
Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 37min 40.1sec 2. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Toyota Corolla 1hr 38min 55.8sec 3. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 39min 05.3sec 4. T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Seat WRC 1hr 39min 44.1sec 5. P Bourne/C Vincent NZ Subaru Impreza 1hr 41min 04.8sec 6. T Rådstrom/F Gallagher S Ford Focus 1hr 41min 38.0sec 7. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 1hr 42min 05.0sec 8. H Rovanpera/R Pietilainen FIN Seat WRC 1hr 42min 24.9sec 9. G Trelles/M Christie RA Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 43min 37.5sec 10 M Kahle/D Schneppenheim D Toyota Corolla 1hr 43min 37.6sec