Catalunya Rally - Opening leg

Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz defied the rain in Spain to power their Ford Focus World Rally Cars into second and third respectively after today's opening leg of the Catalunya Rally. Each claimed a fastest time on one of the...

Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz defied the rain in Spain to power their Ford Focus World Rally Cars into second and third respectively after today's opening leg of the Catalunya Rally. Each claimed a fastest time on one of the day's six asphalt speed tests as the Focus cars established themselves at the top end of the leaderboard from the very start of this three-day fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist were fastest on the last of today's six special stages in the hilly Girona region, north of Barcelona, and were never outside the top three times on the other five tests as they ended the day 8.0sec behind leader Richard Burns. Sainz and co-driver Luis Moya were quickest on the third stage, the Spanish pair 24.2sec behind Burns as the cars returned to the rally base in the resort of Lloret de Mar.

The weather was far removed from that which attracts holidaymakers to this Costa Brava coastline. Torrential rain early this morning left the asphalt streaming on the opening stages but as the skies cleared the roads started to dry and the Ford Martini drivers faced an awkward choice between Michelin's full rain tyres and the less treaded intermediate rubber.

The decisions became no easier as the afternoon stages were a repeat of the morning tests. The first passage left plenty of mud and dirt covering the asphalt and this time the drivers' choice rested between dry weather slick tyres and intermediates.

"It's been very muddy, especially on the fourth stage which was more like gravel than asphalt and very slippery," said 31-year-old McRae. "We started well this morning and things have been getting better and better all day. The Focus feels good and I feel confident with it.

"I hope the roads are dry tomorrow because then we'll have consistency in tyre choice and I'm confident well be challenging for the lead. If the weather stays unpredictable we all have the uncertainty of what tyres to use and if that happens it could be that this rally is decided by tyre selection," added McRae.

Sainz's performance delighted thousands of his fellow countrymen who ignored the inclement conditions to urge on the Madrid-based double world champion and Moya, the local hero from Barcelona. Their only concern was a broken windscreen wiper which also broke Sainz's concentration in the heavy rain of the day's opening stage.

"There was a hell of a lot of water on that first stage but the conditions improved after that, although it was still difficult," said Sainz. "The car has been perfect all day and mechanically we've had nothing to worry us so far. Everyone is talking about the weather but I don't really mind if it's wet or dry tomorrow. Whatever the conditions, you just have to adapt to them."

Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson oversaw routine maintenance at the final service park this evening and said: "It's been a difficult day for tyre selection but I don't think we've made any mistakes and Michelin's rubber hasn't let us down. It's very encouraging that on the final stage, which was completely dry for everyone and without variables, we claimed fastest time with Colin. The revised engine, which we're using for only the second rally, gives better response at low range and I'm sure that both Colin and Carlos can put Richard under heavy pressure tomorrow."

News from our Rivals

Richard Burns (Subaru) maintained the rich vein of form which has seen him win the last two championship rounds to set three fastest times as he led from the start of the leg. Behind the Ford duo, Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) was hampered by rear differential problems in the morning but recovered to hold fourth ahead of the Peugeot trio of Francois Delecour, Marcus Grönholm and Gilles Panizzi. Delecour complained of a misted windscreen on the opening two stages while Panizzi lost time with engine troubles. The slippery conditions suited gravel expert Grönholm whose only concerns came from the gearbox in the fifth stage. Armin Schwarz (Skoda) scored the Czech manufacturer's first ever fastest time in the world championship by winning the fifth stage. The German lies ninth. Didier Auriol (Seat) debuted a new semi-automatic gearbox with joystick gearshift but reverted to the manual option during the morning. Juha Kankkunen (Subaru) made a bad start when his car broke an alternator pulley en route to the service park before the first stage. Time penalties were incurred as repairs were made and the Finn had to tackle the next three stages with no power steering, losing around four minutes in total. Kenneth Eriksson and Alister McRae (both Hyundai) suffered turbo boost problems during the morning but modifications brought improved runs during the afternoon.

Tomorrow's Route

Competitors face a daunting second leg in the Tarragona region, south of Barcelona, where the stages are much longer and the asphalt more abrasive than that of today, placing an emphasis on tyre performance. They must cover 181km of stages in a total route of 926km, the longest single day in a European world championship rally for 17 years. Drivers leave Lloret de Mar at 05.00 and return at 21.55. In between they tackle five stages, four of which are more than 36km long.

<pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 02min 48.1sec 2. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 1hr 02min 56.1sec 3. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 03min 12.3sec 4. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 03min 12.8sec 5. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 1hr 03min 41.7sec 6. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 03min 42.7sec 7. G Panizzi/H Panizzi F Peugeot 206 1hr 03min 48.0sec 8. M Martin/M Park EE Toyota Corolla 1hr 04min 12.6sec 9. A Schwarz/M Hiemer D Skoda Octavia 1hr 04min 14.0sec 10 A Navarra/S Fedeli I Toyota Corolla 1hr 04min 17.9sec

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Tommi Makinen , Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , Richard Burns , Gilles Panizzi , Didier Auriol , Marcus Gronholm , François Delecour , Alister McRae , Armin Schwarz , Kenneth Eriksson , Luis Moya , Nicky Grist , Malcolm Wilson