Strong showing for SWRT on opening day in Corsica
After the first day of tarmac competition in Corsica, the Subaru World Rally Team entries once again livened up the WRC with a thrilling day-long battle for position. The pairings of Petter Solberg / Phil Mills and Chris Atkinson / Stephane Prevot performed solidly under pressure in a very tight three-way shootout to finish fourth and sixth respectively, whilst Brice Tirabassi and Fabrice Gordon fought hard to climb to ninth in only their second rally with the team.
"It's been an encouraging day of clear steady progress and all of our drivers are in good positions to capitalise on their performance over the next couple of days" said David Richards. "We came here with the same setup as we finished Spain, and as our drivers cover more distance on tarmac with this car, so we are able to optimise the setup in these conditions."
Rallye de France Tour de Corse is the second instalment of the season's back-to-back Mediterranean asphalt challenge, but the French rally demonstrated the fiery temperament more characteristic with neighbouring Italy. Claiming at random some of the front-running crews, Solberg and Mills' day was not without drama as the duo had a huge moment whilst attacking stage three with all of Hollywood's usual flair and enthusiasm.
Today's stages were very definitely Corsican in their nature though, and equally different from the tests seen last week in Spain. The roads twisted and turned their way through the island's rugged mountains, and were much dirtier and more gravel-strewn than their Catalan counterparts.
Right from the day's first stage, the trio of Solberg, Atkinson and Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala were locked in a close-run duel for position, the gaps between them down to just 0.1seconds at times as they traded positions. Solberg and Mills delivered a great performance to clinch the honours of this battle on the final stage, leapfrogging two positions to jump into fourth position overall.
"I'm very happy with the last stage today actually" said Petter Solberg. "We made some changes in the service and they didn't work at all so we lost two places, but then we went back again and I made some more changes the other way on the road section before the last stage and the car got better and better.
"The car is definitely running better on the surface here. On the smooth stages like the first today we lose a bit of time, but on the others where it's more abrasive it's much better grip. We'll make a change again and see what we can do on the stages tomorrow."
Chris Atkinson followed: "We are in a close battle with Petter and Jari-Matti today, and considering we're in the same car as Petter and he's won this rally before I can't complain. I think the setup works ok and we had some good stages, but the last stage wasn't so good. We lost some time at the end of the stage where something changed. I was all over, using all the road.
"At one stage we were up to fourth, then with the problem at the end with not being able to carry the speed we dropped back to sixth. It's good to be able to fight though, and for sure it makes it more interesting during the day, but we want to be fighting for first."
The day's weather was typically Mediterranean, and with no threat of rain, the temperature soared from a warm start of 12 degrees Celsius to a scorching high of 24 degrees. Coupled with the old and abrasive asphalt, the hard compound variant was the weapon of choice across all WRC crews.
Starting the morning from 18th position, Tirabassi and Gordon suffered deteriorated road conditions as each car running ahead of them dragged dirt and gravel onto the racing line, reducing the available grip and making the already demanding roads trickier still. On their home event, the duo nevertheless performed impressively to finish day one of their home rally in ninth position overall.
"For me it's been a tough day today, but we are still ninth" said Brice Tirabassi. "The feeling has not been so good today, and even though I know the roads here very well, I haven't been able to push as hard as I want. I've been taking some risks to try and get the speed, and we've had one or two moments, so we will have to make some changes overnight to improve it for tomorrow."
Day two of the rally takes competitors through a further six stages to the north and north east of Ajaccio. With two passes each of three individual speed tests, it is the longest day of the event at 122.84 competitive kilometres. The opening two stages of each loop are exactly the same as run in last year's rally, and so are familiar for all crews. The final stage of the morning and of the day itself is new though, last used in competition in 2003. The day's competition is classically Corsican -- a combination of narrow, fast, abrasive and downhill sections that will be incredibly tricky if it rains.