Finland: Ford leg one summary

McRae heads Ford trio in Finnish 'Grand Prix'. Ford Rallye Sport has all three FIA World Rally Championship contenders on the top 10 leaderboard after a difficult opening leg on the ninth round of the series in Finland today. Britons Colin...

McRae heads Ford trio in Finnish 'Grand Prix'.

Ford Rallye Sport has all three FIA World Rally Championship contenders on the top 10 leaderboard after a difficult opening leg on the ninth round of the series in Finland today. Britons Colin McRae and Nicky Grist, winners of the last two rounds in Greece and Kenya, lie fifth on the Rally Finland in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car with team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya sixth and the third pairing of Markko Märtin and Michael Park in 10th.

Average speeds on this fastest round of the 14-rally championship topped 125kph over the flowing switchback roads in the forests close to Jyväskylä during a day of furious competition. Nine speed tests covering 128.61km comprised the action and huge crowds flocked into the special stages to see what is affectionately known by Finns as the 'Jyväskylän Grand Prix'.

Ford Rallye Sport has won each of the three previous championship rounds but the Focus RS cars were unable to find the same pace on the smooth Finnish gravel roads. McRae was the team's best performer throughout the day, settling into fifth before climbing to fourth during the trickier and narrower afternoon stages. However, the 34-year-old Scot lost a place on the penultimate test, a rough 23.44km stage that was littered with large rocks after being used earlier in the day.

"We're going as fast as possible but we can't match the times of the three Peugeot drivers at the top of the leaderboard," said McRae. "The Focus feels great but the data shows we're losing time progressively rather than in any specific places. If it wasn't for the top three cars we'd all be having quite a nice battle here! The two stages that were repeated this afternoon were quite rough, especially the second. There were a lot of big rocks on the road and when we hit them at speed they flung the car into the air."

Sainz tried revised suspension settings this morning but felt uncomfortable with them and reverted to his original set-up. "There was too much roll on the car and I didn't feel confident of attacking as hard as I needed to so it was sensible to change. The set-up feels right now and that's important because tomorrow's stages are much longer and so potential time gains or losses are greater," said 40-year-old Sainz.

The changes worked and Sainz climbed from 10th to sixth over the afternoon stages, setting fastest time on the final test, a repeat of last night's super special at Killeri. "In the end it wasn't a bad day. We're only two seconds behind Colin and the fight is still quite open. I'm surprised we're so far behind the leading three cars. It's quite perplexing really because the whole team was confident and hoping for much more."

Märtin suffered in the early stages from a poor tyre choice and a vibration from within the rubber but a series of consistent times lifted him to eighth until a 10 second penalty for a jump start on the penultimate stage cost two places. "It was a silly mistake. I let the clutch out too early and we started a split second too soon," he said.

"I really wasn't happy with the set up this morning but it has got better during the day. I didn't like the big jumps because the car wanted to land on its nose and that wasn't nice. It's been hard work but I think tomorrow will be better," said the 26-year-old Estonian driver.

Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin, driving a fourth Ford Rallye Sport Focus RS, retired on the penultimate stage with broken front suspension. "We came over a crest into a very rutted braking area for the next corner and hit a stone that was the size of a helmet with the left front wheel. The suspension broke immediately. We used a tie wrap from the spare wheel to fix it but it lasted only another few hundred metres," said Duval, who expressed his disappointment for the mechanics who worked late into Wednesday evening to build a new car after he damaged his original car beyond repair in a weekend testing crash.

Germany's Armin Kremer and Dieter Schneppenheim retired their Focus RS on the fourth stage when stone damage caused the hydraulic fluid in the transmission to leak out, leaving the car stuck in sixth gear. Although Kremer tried to reach the end of the stage the effort burned out the clutch and he stopped about 5km before the finish.

News from our Rivals

World championship leaders Peugeot dominated the day setting fastest time on every stage except the last and holding the top three positions. Richard Burns was in superb form, the world champion outgunning the Finns on home ground by posting five fastest times to add to last night's super special stage victory. He leads by 12.0sec from team-mate Harri Rovanperä, who was fastest on one stage, with a third car of Marcus Grönholm in third, the Finn losing second on the penultimate test with a broken shock absorber. The privately-entered Peugeot of Juuso Pykälistö retired from fourth with transmission troubles. Petter Solberg (Subaru) was the best of the rest in fourth but team-mate Tommi Mäkinen was a lowly eighth, despite no major problems. The only major retirements were Francois Delecour (Mitsubishi) whose new evolution Lancer stopped on its first event with broken suspension on the penultimate stage while Kenneth Eriksson (Skoda) stopped in the sixth stage when a problem with the fuel feeder system left his car's fuel tank dry.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg is Finnish rallying at its best. Fast, flowing roads, huge jumps and blisteringly high average speeds are the characteristics of the six stages south-west of the rally base of Jyväskylä. After the 06.00 start, drivers face 176.65km of competition before returning to the city at 21.11. The day includes a double run at the Ouninpohja test, one of the classic stages of the season with smooth, wide roads and stomach-churning jumps. <pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. R Burns/R Reid GB Peugeot 206 1hr 06min 08.1sec 2. H Rovanperä/R Pietilainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 06min 20.1sec 3. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 06min 30.0sec 4. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 1hr 07min 20.4sec 5. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 1hr 07min 24.9sec 6. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 1hr 07min 27.0sec 7. S Lindholm/T Hantunen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 07min 39.8sec 8. T Mäkinen/K Lindström FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 07min 50.2sec 9. F Loix/S Smeets B Hyundai Accent 1hr 07min 52.0sec 10 M Märtin/M Park EE Ford Focus RS 1hr 07min 52.4sec


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Series WRC