Ford Martini lead drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist finished the first day of the Rally of Great Britain holding a strong eighth place, well placed to mount a big challenge with their Focus World Rally Car for Ford's 11th victory on this event. Junior team members Petter Solberg and Phil Mills surprised themselves and many observers by coming home in ninth position and McRae's Martini team mates Thomas Rådström and Gunnar Barth backed up this three-strong Focus assault with 10th place on the road before a time penalty was taken into account.
Competitors had returned from a day of contrasts after visiting two stately homes, a Grand Prix race circuit, a superspecial track and a horse racing course (twice), knowing that the 387km of Day 1 were a mere prelude to the tough forests to come. Aiming to make 1999 the fourth win on his 'home' event, McRae finished the leg just 24 seconds adrift of leader Juha Kankkunen and 16 behind arch-rival Richard Burns.
"We are a little disappointed to have lost some time today," said McRae. "I've not gone as well as I wanted to. These Sunday stages are always very difficult. I wasn't very happy with my tyre choice this morning as conditions proved much more slippery than I'd imagined. On the first stage we slid wide and clouted a gatepost doing quite a lot of damage to my door, breaking the window. This afternoon went much better and it's wise to remember that this type of day can lose you so much more than you gain by trying too hard. The real rally starts tomorrow and I'm all fired up for the Welsh forests. After two or three stages tomorrow we'll begin to see how this rally will unfold."
After both Ford drivers damaged a door on their Focus cars this morning (McRae on stage 1 and Radstrom on stage 2) the crews had to endure severe wind chill before the team took a novel approach to repairs during the day's first service halt at Silverstone. "Fortunately there was a Focus showcar and a rallycar simulator on display in the Ford Martini hospitality zone at the circuit," explained Team Director Malcolm Wilson. "They were hastily cannibalised to provide new doors for the rallycars which our technicians fitted in less than five minutes. It's been a typical British 'first day' with every car coming into service with signs of damage. We are restoring the cars to conventional gravel suspension for tomorrow. Today they had a stiffer set-up and a lower ride height."
The second Martini-liveried Focus of Thomas Radstrom dropped from 10th place to 23rd after arriving too early at a time control. The philosophical Swede reviewed his day, "We made the right tyre choice this morning though it was even more slippy than we anticipated. I spent the day trying not to make too many mistakes, but I made a few and the time penalty was a blow. But, tomorrow I will take a steady approach as I haven't driven here before and I aim to keep the car on the road so I can enjoy Day 3."
The third Ford Focus of young Norwegian Petter Solberg was a surprise top 10 finisher this evening. "Most of today's kilometres were around Silverstone, so it was important to choose tyres which suited that venue. I chose different tyres from my Ford team mates but for me they were exactly right and I made a good start. I am really happy to be in the top 10, but tomorrow I will drive cautiously as I have very limited experience of British forests and our pace notes are new and still need fine tuning."
News from our Rivals Finland's Juha Kankkunen (Subaru) dominated the opening day, taking the lead on the second stage and setting three quickest times en route to an end of leg advantage of 3.5sec over Francois Delecour (Peugeot). The Frenchman's team-mate Marcus Grönholm impressed many on his way to third, just ahead of Richard burns (Subaru) leading the 'Battle of the Brits'. Toyota pair Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol held fifth and sixth, Auriol losing time with a spin on stage two at Cornbury and a lack of grip. World champion Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) followed them in seventh, despite sliding into a fence at Blenheim Palace. Team-mate Freddy Loix is 13th. Bruno Thiry led Skoda's challenge in 11th with colleague Armin Schwarz in 14th after a differential problem during the morning. Despite many damaged panels, there were no major retirements.
Tomorrow's Route The second leg takes crews into the forests for the first time and a daunting challenge lies ahead. After leaving Cheltenham at 05.15 they tackle eight stages in mid-Wales covering 156km before returning to the rally's host town at 23.05 after more than 780km of driving. Longest test of the day is Sweet Lamb in Hafren Forest at more than 25km, a stage that is used twice in the afternoon, the second time in darkness.
Key Stage Nicky Grist: "All tomorrow's stages will be difficult. There are several classics but I think stage 11, Tywi, could prove the most demanding of all. Last year it was very slippy and at more than 22km it will be a real challenge. Myherin, which we tackle twice, will be another tough one. The initial part is smooth but then it becomes much rougher later."
Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 27min 00.7sec 2. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 27min 04.2sec 3. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 27min 05.2sec 4. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 27min 08.8sec 5. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 27min 17.5sec 6. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Toyota Corolla 27min 23.9sec 7. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 27min 24.4sec 8. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 27min 24.6sec 9. P Solberg/P Mills N Ford Focus 27min 27.9sec 10 H Rovanperä/R Pietilainen FIN Seat WRC 27min 33.2sec
23. T Rådström/ G Barth S Ford Focus 28min 32.8sec