Cyprus: Ford Rallye Sport leg one report

McRae leads as Ford takes command in Cyprus. Ford Rallye Sport dominated today's tough opening leg of the Cyprus Rally to hold three of the top four positions. The rocky gravel mountain tracks in the centre of the sun-kissed Mediterranean...

McRae leads as Ford takes command in Cyprus.

Ford Rallye Sport dominated today's tough opening leg of the Cyprus Rally to hold three of the top four positions. The rocky gravel mountain tracks in the centre of the sun-kissed Mediterranean island held few fears for the team, winners here for the past two seasons, and they took a firm grip at the top of the leaderboard of this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Colin McRae and Nicky Grist lead the rally by 6.9sec in their Focus RS World Rally Car after six speed tests covering 96.32km. Team-mates Markko Märtin and Michael Park are third, just 7.1sec behind their colleagues with Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin fourth in another Focus RS, 17.9sec behind McRae.

All three Ford pairings posted a fastest time during the opening three special stages and all led the rally at some point during the morning. McRae, who suffered no pain from the injured finger on his left hand, added a second stage win on the final test of the day. Only Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya missed out, the Spaniards ending the leg in a lowly 23rd after transmission and power steering problems.

McRae took the lead on the opening stage and although he briefly slipped behind team-mates Duval and Märtin, he regained top spot on the first stage of the afternoon loop and was never again headed. As overnight leader, the 33-year-old Scot will start tomorrow's second leg 15th on the road, the perfect place from which to take advantage of roads swept clear of loose gravel by the early runners.

"Today has been ideal, although the roads have been much rougher than last year, and now we must concentrate on keeping this going for another two days," said McRae. "Everything has gone according to plan but there's a lot more twists and turns to get round before Sunday evening and with all the rocks lying in the road we'll have to look after the car. It's been a great day for the team as a whole and we're looking really strong tonight."

Märtin set a strong pace this morning and was fastest on the third stage to move into a brief lead. He maintained his speed this afternoon, despite admitting that he felt happier on the gravel-covered roads this morning than the cleaner but rougher tracks this afternoon.

"I'm not so confident on the rough roads but I'm very happy with the way the day has gone," said 26-year-old Märtin. "I'm not a big fan of this rally because it's so twisty but we've found a reasonable pace and stuck with it. Tomorrow we'll try to keep up with the front-runners but I think it'll be hard for me to match Colin's pace."

The Estonian suffered several punctures on the rocky tracks but praised Pirelli's anti-deflation system which kept the rubber inflated on each occasion. "It worked so well that I couldn't tell the tyres were punctured until we finished the stage," he said.

Fastest time on the second test was the first for Duval on a world rally and enabled him to lead a world championship event for the first time, just 13 months after his debut in Portugal. "I didn't expect to do this well and whatever happens now I'll be happy. To set fastest time is a major achievement in my career. I don't have any worries, the car feels good and the tyres are solid. There are many big rocks in the road but I can drive over them and feel confident we won't have any problems," said the 21-year-old Belgian.

Sainz lost 2min 30sec after transmission problems on the opening stage and had to drive two more tests before repairs could be made in service. The problem was traced to a broken quill shaft in the front transmission which left no drive to the right front wheel. The team changed the gearbox and the entire differential assembly in under 15 minutes, a superb achievement to prevent further time penalties.

However, at almost the exact same spot on the second run through the stage a rock bent the Focus RS' cross-member and damaged the gearbox transfer casing, leaving 40-year-old Sainz with no power steering. He lost around 3min 30sec as he wrestled the car through the twist and turns of the final two stages. "My arms are a bit sore but not too bad," he said. "But we've lost too much time now to be able to catch up."

News from our Rivals

The rocky tracks caused plenty of problems for the top drivers, although the only major retirement was Juha Kankkunen (Hyundai) who stopped after stage four with a broken sump. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) was the main challenger to Ford, despite two afternoon punctures, but team-mate Gilles Panizzi rolled this morning and lost more than three minutes. Petter Solberg (Subaru) had an awful morning as differential and throttle problems cost four minutes but the Norwegian recovered in the afternoon to set top three times on all three stages. Team-mates Francois Delecour and Alister McRae (Mitsubishi) struggled with broken driveshafts to end the day 15th and 18th respectively but on the leaderboard were Freddy Loix and Armin Schwarz (both Hyundai) despite braking and handling problems for the Belgian and tyre troubles for Schwarz on the opening test.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg is by far the toughest of all, comprising 145.97km of competition and spanning more than 14 hours behind the wheel. Drivers face eight more special stages over similar territory in the Troodos Mountains, including three of around 30km in length. Three stages will be used for a second time and one for a third so conditions are likely to be rough and rocky. After leaving Lemesos at 06.00, competitors return there at 20.18. <pre> Top Five Leaderboard after Leg 1; 1. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 1hr 27min 42.3sec 2. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 27min 49.2sec 3. M Märtin/M Park EE Ford Focus RS 1hr 27min 56.3sec 4. F Duval/J-M Fortin B Ford Focus RS 1hr 28min 00.2sec 5. T Mäkinen/K Lindström FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 28min 14.8sec


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