Cyprus Rally Ford report - leg 1

Ford Martini trio François Delecour, Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz all held top six positions in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars at the end of today's gruelling opening leg of the Cyprus Rally. In blazing heat and over tortuously twisty...

Ford Martini trio François Delecour, Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz all held top six positions in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars at the end of today's gruelling opening leg of the Cyprus Rally. In blazing heat and over tortuously twisty gravel tracks, Delecour ended the day in third, one position ahead of McRae, with Sainz in sixth as the conditions took a heavy toll on many of their rivals.

Air temperatures of 38°C and in-car temperatures of 53°C made today's six speed tests covering 138km in the centre of the Mediterranean island a fearsome challenge for drivers. Slow and twisty roads added to the physical trial while rocks and high temperatures combined to make the day a real test of reliability for cars and tyres.

A liberal covering of loose gravel lay on the road surface and those drivers among the first to tackle the stages, including McRae and Sainz, suffered greatly as they swept the slippery stones away to leave a clean driving line for the benefit of those behind.

Delecour and co-driver Daniel Grataloup started cautiously, although fast enough to slide off the road briefly and into a field on the third stage. The French pair increased their pace during the afternoon and fastest time on the final two tests lifted them into third, just 11.4sec behind leader Marcus Grönholm.

"It was a great end to the day," said 38-year-old Delecour. "We were lucky when we went off the road because we could have lost much more time. Fifteen seconds and a broken gear lever was a small price to pay. It's a shame because had we not gone fruit picking in the field, we would have been leading the rally!"

"We'll attack hard tomorrow because with the top four drivers covered by less than 15 seconds there's much to fight for. But it's too early to think about winning or podium positions because there's such a long way to go and this rally is so tough," he added.

Ford Martini team-mates McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist are just 3.3sec behind their colleagues. The British pair's only difficulty came when the engine management system on their Focus RS required replacing after the car stopped on arrival at the second service park in Paphos.

"Conditions were very much as we expected them," said the 32-year-old Scottish driver. "It was hot and the roads were twisty and rough and physically this is the toughest rally in the championship. If you strayed off the ideal driving line then you were simply handing seconds to your rivals but staying on the right line, which was starting to become cleaner by the time we came through, paid off.

"We're in the ideal place for tomorrow. Fourth position on the road means we get better conditions than those in front and the time gap is very small. With Tommi's retirement we have a great chance to close the gap on him here and I'm looking for maximum points," added McRae.

Sainz and co-driver Luis Moya suffered from the conditions more than most. Starting second on the road, they became the 'pathfinders' following the retirement of Tommi Mäkinen. "We couldn't have driven any harder but conditions were against us so sixth place is good in the circumstances," said 39-year-old Sainz. "We had a small problem on the final stage when a rock became lodged between a shock absorber and the driveshaft, crushing an oil pipe. It wasn't so bad at slow speeds and would have been more of a problem on a faster rally."

News from our Rivals

World championship leader Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) was the biggest casualty of a day which saw four manufacturer cars retire. The Finn struggled by tackling the gravel-strewn stages first, hit a bank on the second test and went off the road for good two stages later. Also out is Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot), the Finn stopping in the second test after hitting a rock and breaking the front suspension, and Piero Liatti (Hyundai) who stopped on the final stage with no oil pressure. The most dramatic retirement was that of Petter Solberg (Subaru) whose day had extreme highs and lows. He posted two fastest times but power steering failure, a small in-car fire, and a lost boot lid were all appetisers for a major fire on the last test that destroyed his car, one of three such incidents today. Fortunately nobody was injured. Leader Marcus Grönholm's (Peugeot) only problem was a puncture but team-mate Didier Auriol struggled with an evil handling car. Alister McRae (Hyundai) shared the brunt of his team's problems with Liatti. Two punctures on the first stage were followed by another on the next and he drove for 16km with a flat front right tyre. Brake problems cost more time and he lost five minutes. Team-mate Kenneth Eriksson was the surprise of the day, the Swede running second before a broken turbo on the final stage dropped him to eighth. Skoda duo Armin Schwarz and Bruno Thiry adopted a cautious pace in the conditions. Schwarz made the leaderboard despite puncture and tyre wear problems while Thiry suffered handling difficulties.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg is based around the rally base at Limassol and comprises stages further east than today. After re-starting at 08.00, drivers face four tests in the morning which are repeated during the afternoon, providing 105.96km of competition. The stages are much shorter than those of today and the leg ends back in Limassol at 18.39. <pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 2hr 00min 23.2sec 2. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 2hr 00min 28.9sec 3. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Ford Focus RS 2hr 00min 34.6sec 4. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 2hr 00min 37.9sec 5. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 2hr 01min 35.3sec 6. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 2hr 01min 48.9sec 7. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Peugeot 206 2hr 02min 15.2sec 8. K Eriksson/S Parmander S Hyundai Accent 2hr 03min 00.0sec 9. T Arai/G MacNeall J Subaru Impreza 2hr 03min 22.6sec 10 A Schwarz/M Hiemer D Skoda Octavia 2hr 04min 23.8sec

-Ford Racing

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Series WRC
Drivers Tommi Makinen , Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , Harri Rovanpera , Didier Auriol , Marcus Gronholm , Petter Solberg , Daniel Grataloup , François Delecour , Alister McRae , Luis Moya , Nicky Grist , Piero Liatti