Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya fought a gritty battle to stem the advancing tide from behind and remain firmly in contention at the top of the leaderboard during today's second leg of the...
Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya fought a gritty battle to stem the advancing tide from behind and remain firmly in contention at the top of the leaderboard during today's second leg of the Rally New Zealand, round 10 of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Both ran near the head of the field and were consequently forced to plough through thick gravel coating the smooth and flowing roads, sweeping them clean to the benefit of those behind. Despite this McRae ended the day second in his Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, 42.6sec behind Richard Burns, while Sainz was fourth. Team-mates François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup are 12th after rolling on the first stage.
Today's eight speed tests north of Auckland, covering 176.29km, promised rich rewards for those drivers far enough down the leaderboard to take advantage of the cleaner roads. But afternoon rain bound together the slippery, loose stones, making conditions more even and offering real hope to McRae and Sainz.
McRae, second in the championship and his eyes set on valuable points, battled hard and was never outside the top six stage times - a remarkable performance given the considerable disadvantage of running fourth on the road.
"To be lying second is the best we could have hoped for in these conditions," said McRae. "We're too far behind Richard to challenge him tomorrow, even though we will have slightly cleaner roads, so our fight will be with Harri for second and we must try to consolidate our position.
"The damp conditions this afternoon allowed us to go a little quicker because the roads weren't as slippery. We've used narrow Pirelli tyres most of the day, which is very unusual on a dry rally, but they were ideal for coping with the gravel and everything has gone pretty much to plan," added the 33-year-old Scot.
If the weather is dry overnight and tomorrow then Sainz will have a slight advantage over Rovanperä and his sights are set on regaining third. "We'll have to wait and see what the weather is like in the morning. If it's dry we can try to catch Harri but if it's wet then the conditions will be more even and it will be harder for us," said Sainz. "We've not had any problems today, but we've taken quite a few risks and not seen the benefits. Every position further down the running order was an advantage today and unfortunately we weren't far enough down."
Delecour looked to have the ideal starting position this morning in eighth but his hopes were ruined when he rolled 12km from the start of the first test. "I was driving quite steadily, too steadily, and I just lost concentration," said the 39-year-old Frenchman. "The car slid wide and we rolled. It ended on its roof and we had to kick out the windscreen to get out of the car. It took us a long time to get the car back on its wheels. It was a stupid mistake."
He dropped over four minutes in the accident, sliding to 17th, and cut his elbow but a string of determined performances enabled him to climb back up the order on stages he had never driven before. "I think we can make the top 10 but we have no chance of a points finish," added Delecour.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson echoed his drivers' views on the importance of road position. "The fact that we've not set any quickest times on normal stages, apart from Colin's fastest time when all the other drivers were easing off last night, shows how crucial the running order has been here. Both Colin and Carlos have done well to hold on today. Tomorrow we'll see where we are after the long second stage and make a plan from there, but second and third is possible," he said.
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This morning's mammoth 59km stage, the longest in word championship rallying, set the tone for the rest of the day. The big movers were Richard Burns (Subaru) who vaulted from ninth to first and Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) who leapt from 12th to fifth. Both took full advantage of their road position as Burns extended his lead and the Finn climbed to third by the end of the leg. Neither had major problems although Burns, who was fastest on six of the eight stages, escaped a sixth-gear incident on stage 13 when he hit a bank and bounced up on two wheels. Problems have been few among the leading cars with all the manufacturer entries still running. However, Freddy Loix (Mitsubishi), lying 10th, had centre differential problems during the afternoon while Petter Solberg (Subaru) reported gearbox troubles over the final two tests. The day's big loser was overnight leader Kenneth Eriksson (Hyundai) who had to face the worst of the conditions at the front of the field. He dropped more than 5min 30sec to Burns and now lies 11th.
The final leg is the shortest of the three. After leaving Auckland at 06.30, drivers head south for two stages before moving east to Maramarua Forest for a final burst of six tests without service in between. They return to Auckland for the finish at 15.25 after another 89km of competition, completing the 382.46km of competitive mileage.
<pre> Leaderboard after Leg 2 1. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 2hr 56min 03.6sec 2. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 2hr 56min 46.2sec 3. H Rovanperä/R Pietilainen FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 57min 08.8sec 4. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 2hr 57min 31.1sec 5. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 57min 46.1sec 6. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Peugeot 206 2hr 57min 46.6sec 7. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 2hr 58min 46.4sec 8. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 2hr 59min 10.5sec 9. A McRae/D Senior GB Hyundai Accent 2hr 59min 31.0sec 10 F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 3hr 00min 37.9sec