Marcus Gronholm had retired from the competition as the Telstra Rally Australia headed back to Perth for the Superspecial stage in Gloucester Park. On the rally's eighth stage the reigning FIA World Rally Champion had slid his Peugeot 206 WRC off...
Marcus Gronholm had retired from the competition as the Telstra Rally Australia headed back to Perth for the Superspecial stage in Gloucester Park. On the rally's eighth stage the reigning FIA World Rally Champion had slid his Peugeot 206 WRC off the road for 17 minutes, promoting Citroen's Sebastien Loeb to the lead. Loeb astonished onlookers with his pace through the tricky stages, particularly the 35-kilometre Stirling Long test, where the Xsara WRC driver stopped the clocks eight seconds faster than anybody. Loeb was embroiled in a battle with Petter Solberg (Subaru). That fight for second became the scrap for the lead when Gronholm went off. With less than a second between them, the pair sensationally set precisely the same time on SS8, but Loeb eased ahead on the penultimate stage of the day.
Technical: Colin McRae's Xsara WRC suffered continued brake problems throughout the day. The Citroens of Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz ran without any mechanical problems.
Sporting: Loeb's pace has been one of the talking points of the opening leg. The Frenchman belied his lack of Rally Australia experience to post fastest time on the day's longest stage, placing himself second overall behind Gronholm after SS7. Loeb admitted he was quite surprised at his performance, especially when he moved into the lead of the event following Gronholm's problem on SS8. Loeb's only trouble was a spin on third stage of the day. Sainz felt there was something wrong with the set-up of his Xsara WRC for the opening loop of stages. The team made some changes to the handling, but the Spaniard wanted to revert to the original set-up after the middle loop. Sainz's day took a turn for the worse when he rolled his Xsara against a tree on SS8, costing him approximately 15 seconds. McRae's efforts to make a good start to this event, went wrong on the road out of service first thing this morning. The Scot lost the front brakes on his Citroen and then suffered more trouble on the second loop of stages. He ended the day towards the bottom end of the top ten following an overshoot on SS7.
Sebastien Loeb said: "I am pushing hard, but I was a surprised when I saw the times for SS6. Last year I struggled on this rally, I wasn't very happy with it, but now things seem to be going well and I am really happy to be leading. I am a little bit sad for Marcus, but not too much! I think I can win this rally, but there is a very long way to go yet. It's going to be a big fight."
Carlos Sainz said: "This morning the car was understeering its way into corners and then oversteering its way out. We made some changes, but then went back to the original set-up. When I rolled, I came out of the trees and the sun hit me, I missed the braking point, hit the bank and rolled."
Colin McRae said: "What could I do this morning? There was air in the system, which meant we lost the front brakes and then cooked the rears. You can't push hard when the car's like that. Things aren't looking brilliant now."
555 Subaru World Rally Team
Technical: Tommi Makinen's car suffered damper problems on the opening leg, while Petter Solberg's car ran without any mechanical problems.
Sporting: Solberg led the event after last night's single run at the Perth City Super stage, but the Norwegian dropped back behind Gronholm on today's opener. Solberg held second place for the morning, despite a puncture. He dropped to third place following Loeb's run in SS6, where the Impreza driver dropped 15 seconds with an overshoot and then drove the last seven kilometres with a flat left-rear tyre. Despite those problems, Solberg remained in the thick of the fight for a podium place as the crews headed north back to Perth for another run at the City Super stage. Tommi Makinen's day started badly with a leaking damper and a spin on the third stage. His suspension trouble got worse when he felt the front dampers weren't working right through the second loop.
Petter Solberg said: "I'm happy that I've set a fastest time today, which shows we've got the pace and our position is good. This is only Friday, this is really only the warm-up for the big fight that is going to come over the next two days. The overshoot came after I misjudged the braking distance on a fast corner, we went quite a long way before we turned and came back."
Tommi Makinen said: "When we had the damper trouble on the second loop of stages, I thought maybe there was something wrong with the transmission, the front of the car wasn't behaving at all like it should be. The spin this morning was my fault, I turned into a corner too early."
Marlboro Peugeot Total
Technical: Harri Rovanpera's 206 WRC suffered brake problems on the first loop of stages this morning, the other two official Peugeots ran without fault.
Sporting: Marcus Gronholm made a fine start to today's stages, moving to the front of the field with fastest time on the first run through the Murray North stage. The reigning world champion ran into trouble on the eighth stage when he slid off the road trying to make it around a tight left-hand hairpin. Gronholm was pushed back onto the road, but dropped 17 minutes in the process. The reigning world champion retired before the last superspecial stage. Richard Burns admitted he was finding it hard to get into a rhythm in the early stages, but accepted that the recent rain had eased the pain of running first on the road. The second loop of stages dried more, however, offering more typical Australian conditions. Rovanpera's rally didn't start well with the brake problems which dropped him to tenth place after the day's opener. He climbed back up the leaderboard after a clean run through the afternoon.
Marcus Gronholm said: "It was a very slow speed corner where we went off, an uphill left-hander. The car slid into a ditch and then wouldn't come out of the other side. We had to get more and more people, in the end there was enough and we could go. It is really disappointing and now the championship doesn't look very good."
Richard Burns said: "This morning was quite difficult. We were one some new roads and I wasn't fully confident to commit to the notes, the afternoon -- although it was dry -- the conditions were much more consistent. The consistency was better for us, it meant I could see where I was going to get grip to slow the car down. I'm reasonably happy, the three drivers ahead of me are drivers who desperately want to win the rally and close the gap on my championship lead." Harri Rovanpera said: "I'm not sure what the brake problem was, but the pedal was going soft after just a few kilometres of the first stages this morning. Then we had a really bad tyre choice in the last two stages, not a great day."
Ford Motor Company
Technical: All three Ford Focus RS WRCs have run without mechanical problems through leg one.
Sporting: Markko Martin's fortunes were mixed today: the Estonian set a fastest time, but then also suffered some time-consuming spins and overshoots. He was also concerned that his pace notes weren't quite right in some of the stages, he'd made them too slow for the pace he was driving at. Francois Duval is just outside the top ten, gaining more experience of the roads. The suspension and tyres on his Focus were too hard for the second loop of stages, but that aside he hadn't suffered any problems. It was the same story for Mikko Hirvonen, who is driving these roads for the first time in his 2002 Focus.
Markko Martin said: "I made more mistakes today than I have made for the rest of the year combined. I also made my first bad tyre choice, so it hasn't been a great day. I don't know how much time we've lost in total, but it must be quite a bit -- we dropped 25 seconds trying to get out of a picnic area this morning."
Francois Duval said: "It has been very slippery in places today, very difficult conditions. The notes weren't perfect in stage six. Our recce car broke down in there and we had to use a right-hand-drive road car, which wasn't perfect -- but I'm not saying this as an excuse."
Mikko Hirvonen said: "It was quite tricky this morning for the first two stages, but then on the third I went flat out and got a good time, I was really happy with that."
Technical: Didier Auriol and Toni Gardemeister were happy with the way their Fabia WRCs ran through leg one.
Sporting: Auriol was the leading Skoda drivers throughout today, happy to report that he wasn't feeling any pain from his shoulder. The Frenchman admitted he had found the conditions quite difficult in places through the opening leg. His team-mate Gardemeister -- who is driving with a broken bone in his right wrist -- also reported slippery roads, but the Finn was taking no chances and made a cautious start to the event. He speeded up through the second loop, but felt the car was nervous on the high-speed sections of the stages.
Didier Auriol said: "It's quite hard to judge the roads, some of the time you think the grip is going to be there and you find it really slippery, quite dangerous, but then other times it's okay and the car can be quite safe. We had some oversteer on the second loop of stages, so we're going to have a look at the changes to the diff we made earlier today."
Toni Gardemeister said: "I'm going slowly, slowly. No chances. On the dry roads everything is okay, but when it is getting wet, it's a little bit harder to drive with my arm. I'm not getting any pain from my arm, but obviously I can't drive the same way. A lot of the time I am just using one arm with the car and not putting any pressure on with the other arm."
1Hyundai World Rally Team
Technical: Armin Schwarz's Accent WRC suffered handling problems on the opening leg, while Freddy Loix's car ran without mechanical fault.
Sporting: Loix battled for position in the lower reaches of the top ten. Schwarz didn't enjoy the day's stages, lacking confidence in what his car would do. The German ended the leg on the fringes of the top ten.
Armin Schwarz said: "The car is very difficult to drive, very hard work. The transmission is not right, the rear differential is taking a lot of pressure, but it's still not locking. The car is floating, it almost feels like we have the rear wheels steering the car. The team lowered the car for the second loop of stages, which helped the problem."
Freddy Loix said: "Our car was working better in the damper conditions this morning. But we haven't had any big problems today."
Marcos Ligato leads the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship standings after a fine opening leg at the wheel of his Mitsubishi Lancer. The Argentine suffered a broken driveshaft in SS6, but still managed to maintain his advantage in the category. British drivers Martin Rowe (Subaru Impreza) and Niall McShea (Mitsubishi Lancer) were second and third respectively.