Hot pace at the front in Catalunya Rally scorcher

The heat was turned up on the FIA World Rally Championship contenders in more ways than one during today's opening leg of Spain's Catalunya Rally. Not only did high temperatures and glorious sun shine on the drivers for the first time this season...

The heat was turned up on the FIA World Rally Championship contenders in more ways than one during today's opening leg of Spain's Catalunya Rally. Not only did high temperatures and glorious sun shine on the drivers for the first time this season but the startling debut of a new team increased the pressure on the regulars more than usual on this fourth event in the 14-round series.

After six speed tests and 101km of competition on bone dry asphalt in the hills north of Barcelona, Ford Martini drivers François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup ended the day in eighth in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, one place ahead of team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya. Colin McRae and Nicky Grist retired the third Focus RS before the start of the final special stage with a fuel pressure problem.

It was a difficulty experienced on all three Focus cars during the day and team director Malcolm Wilson believes all may have suffered a contamination problem in the fuel tank. "All the drivers have experienced low fuel pressure and had to switch from the main fuel pump to the reserve to keep going. The fuel system is no different to that used on other rallies this season and François car completed 400km in testing just before the recce with no signs of difficulty," he said.

"I think there may be a contamination problem in the fuel tank and we've changed the entire fuel system at service tonight on Carlos' and François' cars. We'll examine Colin's car this evening and hopefully that will tell us what the problem is," said Wilson.

The pace was fierce from the start on the first all-asphalt rally of the year and for the Ford Martini team today represented the first competitive opportunity to learn about Pirelli's tyres in such conditions. All three drivers felt softer compound rubber would have been a better option as temperatures rose during the morning stages but in the afternoon only Delecour followed that route. Sainz and McRae chose the same compound but with a stiffer construction tyre to try to improve handling.

Delecour remained eighth for virtually all the leg. "The engine has been misfiring most of the afternoon and we had to push the car to the control at service this evening. We were very lucky and we were almost in the same situation as Colin," he said.

Sainz was roared on by thousands of fellow Spaniards lining the roads, but his fuel pressure problems hindered progress. "We switched to the reserve fuel pump but it didn't make any real difference as the car still misfired. It's been a difficult day because the roads were quite dirty in places during the second run through the stages this afternoon so we can only hope things are better tomorrow," he said.

McRae started slowly, losing a handful of seconds after stalling his engine at the start of the opening stage. However, he had climbed to seventh when the engine of his Focus stopped just before the start of the 15.80km Vallfogona test, the last of the day. It would not re-start and he was forced to retire.

"I don't know what caused the problem but it started on the road section before the final stage," said 32-year-old McRae. "The car wouldn't run properly and it was pointless trying to start the stage. We're just having a really bad run at the moment and things seem to be going against us at every turn. It'll get better soon."

News from our Rivals

The championship debut of Citroën's new car had already been a major talking point. Jesus Puras was only allowed to start after a lengthy inquiry cleared him late last night of illegal practising. He led for much of the day, heading team-mate Philippe Bugalski, fastest on three stages, by 8.7sec. Didier Auriol and Gilles Panizzi (both Peugeot) were untroubled in third and fourth but team-mate Marcus Grönholm suffered his third first leg retirement in four rallies. The Finn hit a wall on the second run through the 21.80km Alpens - Les Llosses, ripping off his left rear wheel. It was a bad day for Subaru. Richard Burns lost time this morning with a broken gearbox and a broken wheel rim this afternoon cost further seconds. He lies 15th. Team-mate Petter Solberg (Subaru) retired after he crashed into a ditch on the third stage and could not regain the road and the third car of Markko Martin struggled with electronic ignition problems which caused the engine to cut out. Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) lies fifth despite a minor brake problem while team-mate Freddy Loix is just one place behind, despite a spin on the final stage.

FIA Super 1600 Cup

François Duval (B) made a superb start to the opening round of the new Junior World Championship in his Ford Puma. One fastest time and three second quickest times in the opening five stages enabled the young Belgian to lead the category. However, he dropped more than four minutes after stopping to change a puncture on the final stage to slip to 15th. Top Puma driver is Patrick Magaud (F), who posted second fastest time on the final stage to climb to seventh. Benoit Rousselot (F) was next best in 10th with Martin Stenshorne (N) a place behind. All seven Pumas that started are still running.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg, in the Tarragona region south of Barcelona, is the most demanding of all, covering almost 900km. After starting at 05.45, drivers face two groups of three stages, totalling 163.78km, before returning to Lloret de Mar at 21.48. The stages are longer, four tests exceeding 31km, and the asphalt more abrasive than that of today.

<pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. J Puras/M Marti E Citroën Xsara 1hr 02min 44.9sec 2. P Bugalski/J-P Chiaroni F Citroën Xsara 1hr 02min 53.6sec 3. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Peugeot 206 1hr 02min 56.1sec 4. G Panizzi/H Panizzi F Peugeot 206 1hr 03min 03.4sec 5. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 03min 09.0sec 6. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 1hr 03min 36.4sec 7. S Canellas/A Sanchis E Seat Cordoba 1hr 03min 48.8sec 8. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Ford Focus RS 1hr 03min 52.8sec 9. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 1hr 03min 56.4sec 10 M Martin/M Park EE Subaru Impreza 1hr 04min 05.1sec

-Ford Martini World Rally

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team