Solid start to Mexican fiesta for Ford Focus rally duo The Corona Rally Mexico made a spectacular entrance into the FIA World Rally Championship as both Ford BP Rallye Sport cars ended today's tough opening leg in points scoring positions. ...
Solid start to Mexican fiesta for Ford Focus rally duo
The Corona Rally Mexico made a spectacular entrance into the FIA World Rally Championship as both Ford BP Rallye Sport cars ended today's tough opening leg in points scoring positions. Markko Märtin and Michael Park lie fifth in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car while team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot are seventh in a similar car after a day in which the sport's new rules played an important part.
More than 13,000 spectators packed the narrow cobblestone streets of Guanajuato last night to view the colourful and spectacular ceremonial start to Mexico's first world rally. Evocative music and vibrant dance spectacles provided the perfect appetiser for the opening competitive action today. Drivers faced four gravel speed tests, covering 108.03km, in the mountains north and east of the rally base in the large city of Leon.
Light rain at last night's start preceded torrential storms later in the evening which continued for much of the night. As a result conditions changed considerably since the recce two days ago which was held in hot sunshine. New regulations banning gravel crews, previously allowed to drive the speed tests shortly before competitors to provide road updates, combined with restrictions on tyre availability left the Ford BP team puzzling over what rubber would be best for the unknown conditions on the opening two tests near Guanajuato. And with no previous data from Mexico, tyre choice was a gamble for all.
There was plenty of mud on the opening loop of special stages, which was not ideal for drivers forced to select from a limited number of tyres nominated several weeks ago when dry and dusty conditions were expected. However, as the sun broke through and temperatures rose, the roads dried and tyre selection for the afternoon stages was much simpler.
Märtin and Park held a strong fourth place for most of the day in their Castrol-backed Focus RS but a scary sixth gear spin midway through the final test cost one place. "We were travelling at about 170kph when I entered a left corner too fast. I think the back of the car caught in some loose gravel and the car went sideways for about 150 metres before ending in a ditch. We had to reverse out and dropped about 30 seconds," said Märtin.
Park said they were lucky to escape so lightly. "It was the sort of incident where you normally close the pace note book and open the flight schedule to go home. We didn't even mark the car and really it should be in a cardboard box after that spin!" he said.
Märtin admitted he didn't find his usual rhythm. "Something was missing from me but I'm not sure what. Because of the altitude the engine doesn't produce the same kind of power and I struggled to learn how to drive the car with less power than I'm used to. It's not so nice to drive the car in the high mountains but that's the same for everyone," said the 28-year-old Estonian, who is 43.3sec behind the leader.
Duval and Prévot were cautious all day, settling into seventh on the first test and remaining there throughout the day. "The first stage was tricky and we drove carefully but I still broke the rear right wheel," said 23-year-old Duval. "I'm not sure how it happened but maybe I hit something. Michelin's ATS mousse worked well so the tyre stayed inflated and we were able to change it at the end of the stage. I've not pushed flat out today and I won't tomorrow either because I don't want to take risks. I think that will only happen on Sunday.
Duval was hampered throughout by his low seat position in the car. "When the roads are flat then I have no problems. But when they are undulating with lost of crests, then I cannot see properly and that has cost some time today. We will raise the seat tonight," added the Belgian.
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson watched over final service this evening, at which the turbo and cam belt were replaced on Duval's car, and said: "It's unfortunate that Markko dropped time on the final stage but on the other hand it was a high speed incident and we should be thankful that it didn't end in retirement. The first day on a new rally is a time for learning and both Markko and François have learned much today that will play an important part over the course of the next two legs."
The Ford BP team welcomed Mexican Champ Car driver Michel Jourdain Jnr into its service park in Leon. Jourdain, who finished third in the 2003 CART series and still holds the record as the youngest driver ever to start a Champ Car race, chatted with Märtin and Duval. "It's the first time I've ever seen rallying and I'm impressed," said the Team Rahal driver. "The only similarities between this and my form of motor sport are four tyres and a steering wheel! I'd like to have the opportunity to swap cars with Markko and François and they're very welcome to have a drive in my car."
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World champion Petter Solberg (Subaru) led from the first stage, setting two fastest times to end the day with a 5.6sec lead over Sebastien Loeb (Citroen). However, Solberg's engine would not start at the entrance to the final service park and he and co-driver Phil Mills had to push the car uphill into the time control. They arrived four minutes late and incurred a 40 second penalty which dropped them to fourth. Loeb, who also claimed two stage wins, suffered a puncture and brake problems this morning but reduced the Norwegian's advantage this afternoon. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) is third despite choosing tyres for the opening two stages that were too soft in the drier then expected conditions. Carlos Sainz (Citroen) was another to opt for tyres that were too soft this morning while sixth placed Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) lost his brakes towards the end of both the first and third stages and also punctured a rear tyre. Gilles Panizzi (Mitsubishi) suffered an oil leak after hitting a rock on the opening test while team-mate Gigi Galli lost his brakes on the opening stage and tackled the second test with no stopping power at all, dropping two minutes. He is 12th.
The second leg covers similar mountainous territory but remains closer to Leon. After leaving the city at 08.00, drivers face two loops of two stages covering 154.34km before returning to Leon at 18.04. It is the longest day of the rally.