Ford Martini drivers Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya ended today's opening leg of the Rally of Portugal in second after one of the toughest days' competition witnessed in the FIA World Rally Championship for some time. Appalling driving conditions ...
Ford Martini drivers Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya ended today's opening leg of the Rally of Portugal in second after one of the toughest days' competition witnessed in the FIA World Rally Championship for some time. Appalling driving conditions forced the world's best drivers to the limits of their ability and Sainz's Ford Focus RS World Rally Car never missed a beat as he ended 17.4 seconds behind Tommi Mäkinen.
François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup lie seventh in their Focus RS after today's seven mud-covered speed tests covering 109km, all but one in the hills around Fafe, north-west of Porto. Two others were cancelled, one due to the awful conditions and the other on safety grounds, brought about by the weather. Colin McRae and Nicky Grist retired their Focus late this afternoon with an engine problem when in seventh.
The seemingly endless torrents of rain turned the sandy gravel roads into a mudbath and some of the world's most experienced drivers said the stages were the worst they had seen on a rally. Conditions worsened with the passage of every car and it was a huge advantage to be among the first three competitors to tackle the stages. Not one fastest time was posted by a driver starting lower than third.
Technicians from the Ford Martini team and Pirelli inserted wide cuts into the tyres fitted to the Focus cars to enable them to cut through the muddy quagmire in search of a harder surface beneath. But the roads were so slippery that on one stage drivers of the calibre of McRae, Delecour and Richard Burns ceded more than 90 seconds to Mäkinen in just 26km with none having any problems.
Thirty-eight-year-old Sainz set fastest time on three stages as the wily Spaniard held third for much of the day, before climbing to second before the final stage. "I've rarely driven in conditions like these," he said. "Just keeping the car on the road is an achievement. It looks like the last month in Portugal has been rain, rain and then more rain and the weather forecast suggests that will continue tomorrow.
"The fog was as big a problem as the lack of grip. It's easy to make a mistake in fog, especially on new sections which we don't know well. A combination of the mud, the fog and the new roads made it so difficult. Tomorrow's roads have a firmer base so I hope it won't be as slippery but I think we can expect them to be quite rough," he said.
Delecour has been content to ease his way through the leg, unwilling to take big risks on the slippery roads. "Today wasn't good for anyone," said the 38-year-old Frenchman. "We just tried to stay on the road and complete the leg without making a mistake. It's all too easy to make a mistake and any errors will prove costly in these conditions. It'll be hard to improve our placing because when the cars are re-seeded tonight, those ahead of us will have better road position and therefore better conditions tomorrow."
McRae described the stages as 'worse then Kenya's Safari Rally' but the Scot held a battling seventh until his retirement one kilometre from the finish of stage eight. "The engine began to lose power and then seemed to drop onto three cylinders," he said. "We stopped to have a look under the bonnet but couldn't continue. We won't know the reason until the engineers have examined the engine. This year can only get better and hopefully our luck will turn soon."
News from our Rivals
Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) took full advantage of his beneficial road position to build a comfortable lead. But even he did not escape the rigours of the day, suffering three punctures and leaving the road once during the day's first three stages. Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) led early on but settled into second until a holed radiator incurred a time penalty as mechanics raced to fit a replacement. Team-mate Marcus Grönholm suffered less from the mud than most of his rivals, his team's brave decision to nominate a narrow mud tyre four weeks ago paying off. Third team member Didier Auriol fell back after stopping to repair a suspension problem between stages and incurring a 2min 10sec penalty. Richard Burns (Subaru) was his team's top runner in fifth. But they lost Toshi Arai who retired after damaging his suspension and steering on a rock and Petter Solberg who stopped with a broken steering arm. Kenneth Eriksson and Alister McRae (both Hyundai) gave the new Accent an encouraging debut, the pair lying ninth and 10th. The rally was a short-lived affair for Skoda. Bruno Thiry retired with electrical problems on the liaison section after last night's opening super special stage while Armin Schwarz stopped with clutch failure on the way to today's first stage.
The route heads south-west for nine more stages based around Tabua, using the famous roads in the Arganil area. The opening three stages are repeated, the leg ending with three other stages slightly further north. The drivers leave Santa Maria da Feira at 06.00 and return at 20.45 after 177.36km of competition.
<pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 27min 34.8sec 2. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 1hr 27min 52.2sec 3. H Rovanperä/R Pietilainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 28min 01.1sec 4. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 28min 53.6sec 5. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 29min 47.3sec 6. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 1hr 30min 41.2sec 7. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Ford Focus RS 1hr 31min 04.7sec 8. M Martin/M Park EE Subaru Impreza 1hr 32min 15.7sec 9. K Eriksson/S Parmander S Hyundai Accent 1hr 32min 48.9sec 10 A McRae/D Senior GB Hyundai Accent 1hr 33min 27.8sec