Argentina: Ford leg one summary

Märtin holds second for Ford after tough start in Argentina Ford Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park held an impressive second place at the end of today's gruelling opening leg of the Rally Argentina. Their Ford Focus RS World...

Märtin holds second for Ford after tough start in Argentina

Ford Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park held an impressive second place at the end of today's gruelling opening leg of the Rally Argentina. Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car claimed victory on two of the 13 gravel speed tests during a dramatic day in which the roads proved too much for many of the top drivers and cars, and they are just 22.4sec behind overnight leader Carlos Sainz.

Team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot are seventh in their Focus RS, an excellent performance by the Belgian duo on 22-year-old Duval's debut drive on this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen endured a troubled day and returned to the rally base in Villa Carlos Paz tonight in 30th place in their Focus RS.

The championship's only visit to the Americas signifies fiesta time for the passionate Argentine people who are fanatical about the rally. Tens of thousands flocked to the short but spectacular special stages which opened the rally last night and huge crowds again lined the tracks today amid the stunning scenery of the Sierra Chica and Sierra Ischilin mountain ranges. Although the weather was cooler than in recent days, temperatures still topped 20°C, pleasant conditions for the partying fans.

Märtin lay seventh overnight and quickly moved up the leaderboard as the opening leg, which formed a massive 45 per cent of the rally, started in earnest. This is only the 27-year-old Estonian's second appearance in Argentina and he found driving the radical new Focus RS very different on the rougher and twistier tracks here than he had on the smoother and more flowing roads during the car's debut in New Zealand last month.

"It was hard work and I think I earned every penny of my wages this morning," said Märtin. "The car didn't handle as well as I'd like and it was hard to keep it on the road. New Zealand was like a joyride compared to this morning! I had a big scare on the fifth stage at a huge jump. We took off and alI I could see was sky and I only like that view from an aeroplane and not a rally car. I really didn't like it and it was hard to regain my concentration after that."

He climbed to third before a gearbox problem midway through the eighth stage meant he could not select fourth or fifth gears. He was unable to select sixth in the next test and so had to tackle one of the rally's fastest stages with only first, second and third gears. He dropped 30 seconds and slid back to fifth, at the back of a fierce four-car fight for second place with just six seconds covering the quartet.

But Märtin recovered superbly on the final four stages, a repeat of the opening tests this morning. Fastest on two, he claimed second and stretched the gap to third-placed Richard Burns to 17.7sec, despite losing the front bumper from his Focus RS in a watersplash in the penultimate stage. The resulting drag effect made the car difficult to handle through the final test but still Märtin posted fastest time. "We had a good end to the day after our gearbox problem. Our first target is to maintain second tomorrow but we'll also try to catch Carlos, which won't be an easy task," he said.

Duval lost time after hitting a big stone on the second corner of the opening stage. The impact smashed the rim and also affected the handling, so after fitting a replacement wheel following the finish, he adopted a cautious attitude for the next three tests. He made no more mistakes and as he grew more accustomed to the unique characteristics of the Argentine roads, so his times improved.

"Although I made a recce of the rally last year, we made new pace notes this year and so today has been really hard. Stéphane made many changes as the day went on but that's all part of gaining experience. I've had no problems at all with the car. The broken wheel this morning was my mistake and I'm happy with our position tonight," said Duval.

Hirvonen's first taste of rallying in Argentina is one that will remain with him for a long time. The Finns hit a rock in the opening stage, flattening the car's exhaust and bending the propshaft, and the resulting power loss cost three minutes over the next three tests. The vibration from the impact caused a pipe leading to the turbo to melt and when that created excess pressure on the next group of stages, an oil seal failed. Hirvonen had to stop and cut off the oil supply to the turbo before continuing with about 20 percent of the normal power output. He dropped about 24 minutes in total.

His difficult day was completed when he had to switch from the automatic gear shift to the back-up manual version on the first stage after a new turbo was fitted at service. He re-set the system on the liaison section after the test and then continued unhindered. "Someone has been punishing me today," he said. "After all our problems I drove carefully over the final three stages because I didn't want anything else to happen. But we're still in the rally and there's many drivers who can't say that tonight."

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Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) extended his overnight lead before hitting a rock on the ninth stage. The impact ripped the rear left wheel from the car and the world champion had to drive 24km on three wheels. He survived but the 1min 45sec lost dropped him to sixth. That left the consistent Carlos Sainz (Citroen) in front, the Spaniard posting three fastest times. Richard Burns (Peugeot) held third, despite handling problems, ahead of team-mate Harri Rovanperä who overcame tyre troubles this morning. The day proved tough for many drivers. Tommi Mäkinen (Subaru) lost second place when he suffered a gear selection problem on stage eight and had to tackle two tests with the car locked in second gear. He lost 14 minutes and lies 19th. Team-mate Petter Solberg also held second early on but rolled on stage five and went off the road again on the final test, ending the day in eighth. Freddy Loix (Hyundai) retired with engine problems after stage six while Colin McRae (Citroen) went out when his car caught fire on stage nine and burned out. An indication of how tough the day has been is that 30 of the original 78 starters failed to return to Villa Carlos Paz tonight.

Tomorrow's Route

After today's gruelling leg in the Punilla Valley and Sierra Chicas, competitors face little respite as the second leg takes them back to the same territory for a day that is only slightly shorter. The rally leaves Villa Carlos Paz at 06.55 for nine more stages covering 153.90km. The route comprises three morning tests close to the small town of San Marcos Sierra which are repeated in the afternoon, split by three more tests further south, close to Villa Carlos Paz. Drivers return for the final overnight halt at 20.22.


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About this article
Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team