Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist led the Monte Carlo Rally at the close of today's opening leg after a dramatic day in the French Alps. Team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were third and FranÃ§ois Delecour and Daniel...
Ford Martini drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist led the Monte Carlo Rally at the close of today's opening leg after a dramatic day in the French Alps. Team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were third and François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup , all driving similar Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars, lay sixth after a leg of high attrition on the icy and snowy mountain roads.
Early morning snow, requiring the leading drivers to fit studded snow tyres to their vehicles, gave way to moist asphalt as temperatures rose. Tyre selection became tricky as this opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship, watched by huge crowds, lived up to its reputation as the most unpredictable event in the calendar.
The snow covered roads kept the big names down the leaderboard for the opening two speed tests as they ploughed the road clear to the benefit of the lower runners. However, McRae and Grist quickly climbed the order as the roads cleared and set fastest time on the fourth of the day's six special stages, covering a total of 141.74km, to take the lead. They ended the day 30.6sec ahead of Tommi Mäkinen .
"This is a good opening day to the season," said 32-year-old McRae. "They were very tricky stages and in such conditions it's easy to slip up. My approach was a cautious one and that paid off because as soon as you push too hard you make a mistake.
"The work of the ice note crews has been very important because with conditions changing quickly it would have been easy to make a wrong tyre selection but our choice was right throughout the day. If the weather stays as it is, road position should not make any difference tomorrow but if it snows again that could all change," he said.
Sainz and Moya grew in both confidence and speed as the day continued, returning to the tiny Principality of Monaco just 3.3sec behind Mäkinen having set fastest time on the final stage.
"It's been a tough day," said the 38-year-old Madrid-based driver. "We made a poor tyre choice early in the day and I didn't have a good feeling with the car. But the last two stages were good and fastest time on the final test was a boost for my confidence. Third is a good start but there's a long way to go and situations change so quickly on this rally that it's far too early to think about what may happen at the finish on Sunday.
Delecour and Grataloup would have preferred conditions other than snow and ice in which to make their competitive debut in a Ford Focus, but the French duo quickly came to terms with the car to record fastest time on only the third stage. Two punctures in the final three stages cost time but it was an impressive performance from the 38-year-old driver.
"I was delighted with fastest time on the third stage," he said. "We could have set the scratch time on the next test also but we had a puncture after 15km which cost time.
"I'm learning about the Focus all the time. I'm very pleased with the car and the way it handles and the engine feels strong. I have much more to learn but this is a pretty good start for us today," added Delecour.
News from our Rivals
~It was a disastrous day for manufacturers' and drivers' title holders Peugeot. World champion Marcus Grönholm retired after two stages when a broken water pump damaged his car's engine, Gilles Panizzi crashed heavily into a ravine on the next test and Didier Auriol retired from the lead after hitting a bank and breaking a wheel on the same stage. Officials refused to allow him to start the fourth test. Other major retirements included Markko Martin (Subaru) when faulty electrics stopped his car en route to the first stage. Team-mate Petter Solberg held second but rolled out on the penultimate stage while Piero Liatti (Hyundai) stopped with no oil pressure.
Richard Burns , fully recovered from Wednesday's recce accident, made a cautious start after misjudging the conditions but his pace improved after switching to asphalt set-up in the afternoon. Bruno Thiry (Skoda) dropped more than six minutes on stage two with turbo problems while team-mate Armin Schwarz rose to fourth before a poor tyre choice cost time. He ended the day in fifth. Private entrant Toni Gardemeister fell back, after leading on the opening stage, when he stopped to change a puncture on the next test. On a day of amazing attrition, 21 cars retired leaving just 35 to re-start tomorrow.
Nearly 17 hours behind the wheel and five more stages based around Digne-Les-Bains lie in wait during the second leg. It includes two runs at the feared 36.69km Sisteron, the longest and, in terms of weather conditions, the most unpredictable test of the rally. Drivers leave Monaco at 06.00 and return at 22.40 after 132.78km of competition in a total route of 814.77km. It will be a long and arduous day. <pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 1hr 52min 46.1sec 2. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 53min 16.7sec 3. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 53min 20.0sec 4. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 54min 15.7sec 5. A Schwarz/M Hiemer D Skoda Octavia 1hr 54min 35.4sec 6. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Ford Focus 1hr 54min 35.6sec 7. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 1hr 55min 14.8sec 8. A McRae/D Senior GB Hyundai Accent 1hr 55min 26.1sec 9. O Burri/J-P Pathey CH Toyota Corolla 1hr 55min 32.8sec 10 T Gardemeister/P Lukander FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 55min 52.5sec