Rally Finland Ford Racing leg one report

World championship chasing Colin McRae and Nicky Grist headed a trio of Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars packed onto the leaderboard after today's opening leg of the Rally Finland. The British pair are sixth after nine breathtakingly fast speed...

World championship chasing Colin McRae and Nicky Grist headed a trio of Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars packed onto the leaderboard after today's opening leg of the Rally Finland. The British pair are sixth after nine breathtakingly fast speed tests north of the rally base in Jyväskyla.

Ford Martini team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya are ninth but the surprise of the day has been amateur Finn Jani Paasonen and co-driver Arto Kapanen who shocked the superstars by climbing as high as third in their Focus before ending the leg eighth. François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup lie 27th after power steering problems.

Thousands of fans flocked into the forests to witness the spectacular action on this fastest round of the FIA World Rally Championship. As average speeds topping 124kph over the wide roads and famous roller-coaster jumps, they were not disappointed. The pace at the front was fierce as the Finns tried to capitalise on local knowledge and their understanding of the intricacies of the roads.

When championship leader Tommi Mäkinen retired on the opening special stage, McRae refused to be drawn into the battle. Securing championship points to close in on Mäkinen is more important than chasing victory and the 33-year-old Scot settled into a consistent pace, climbing the order as the day went on.

"This afternoon was easier because although the roads were rougher, they were less slippery as the loose gravel had been removed during the first run through the stages this morning," said McRae. "A lower road position will make a difference tomorrow because there's more gravel on the surface than on today's stages. There will be no real difference between first and second on the road but the difference will be bigger between fourth and fifth and fifth and sixth so I think we'll be in a good position."

Sainz also made a steady start and lowered the ride height on his car's suspension after the opening group of three stages. However, the 39-year-old Madrid-based driver overshot a junction on the next test and lost around 30 seconds. "It was a bit of a nightmare," he said. "The road was damp and slippery and I missed the junction. I tried to select reverse gear but stalled the car. I tried first gear to spin the car around but there was not much room and the car went into a ditch and stalled again."

He recovered well, posting equal fastest time on the final stage, where two cars at a time raced round a trotting track. "Tomorrow will be hard because we've lost time. Thirty seconds is not much on some rallies, but in Finland it's a big amount," he said.

Paasonen certainly did not make a steady start. The 26-year-old was quick from the very first kilometre and only dropped back during the afternoon stages when he eased off to protect his Focus against rocks kicked up during the morning run over the same roads. "I've really enjoyed today. The car has worked well, I've driven quite carefully and tomorrow I will try to push harder," he promised.

Despite twice overshooting junctions, Delecour was on the edge of the leaderboard until he had to tackle the final four stages with power steering and differential problems. He dropped three minutes after wrestling his Focus through 46km of stages with no power assistance, testing his fitness to the full. "My hands hurt so much. I can't remember much of the stages this afternoon because I was concentrating so hard on trying to steer the car. It was almost impossible to drive because the steering was so heavy," he said.

News from our Rivals
The biggest story of the day was the first stage retirement of championship leader Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi). The Finn hit a tree stump not marked in his pace notes and broke the front left suspension. Retirement was instant. Debutant team-mate Toni Gardemeister suffered brake problems causing him to go off the road and the time taken to change the radiator and the master brake cylinder incurred extra time penalties. He lies 22nd. Richard Burns (Subaru) enjoyed a troublefree day, setting two fastest times on his way to a surprise overnight lead. Team-mates Markko Martin and Petter Solberg are third and seventh respectively, Solberg losing time after going off the road on stage four and damaging the suspension and then suffering a differential problem on the next stage. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) set four fastest times to lead for much of the day but punctures on stages seven and eight dropped him to second. Team-mate Harri Rovanperä also led early on but a broken shock absorber on the final three stages demoted him to fifth behind untroubled colleague Didier Auriol.

FIA Super 1600 Cup
It's been a tough day for the Ford Puma drivers in the junior world championship category. Belgian ace François Duval is the top Puma in second, having set fastest time on stage six, with Frenchman Benoit Rousselot one place behind. Patrick Magaud and Saladin Mazlan retired after crashing at the same place while Martin Stenshorne, third in the championship, went out after hitting rocks and breaking the front suspension on stage six. Martin Rowe also crashed into retirement, just metres from Stenshorne.

Tomorrow's Route
The second leg takes drivers south-west of Jyväskylä for the most demanding day of the event. Based around the small town of Halli, the leg is the longest of the rally, packing 180.55km of competition into nine stages. The day ends with a repeat of the short super special at the Killeri trotting track. However, the most crucial test of the day will be the 34.11km Ouninpohja, the longest of the event and one of the classic stages of the world rally season. Drivers leave Jyväskylä at 06.00 and return at 20.50. <pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 06min 12.1sec 2. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 06min 15.6sec 3. M Martin/M Park EE Subaru Impreza 1hr 06min 25.7sec 4. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Peugeot 206 1hr 06min 41.1sec 5. H Rovanperä/R Pietilainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 06min 47.2sec 6. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 1hr 06min 55.1sec 7. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 1hr 07min 01.9sec 8. J Paasonen/A Kapanen FIN Ford Focus RS 1hr 07min 03.2sec 9. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 1hr 07min 09.8sec 10 J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Hyundai Accent 1hr 07min 23.3sec

-Ford Racing

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Series WRC