New rally Focus makes winning start to career in NZ Ford's new Focus RS World Rally Car made a winning debut on the Rally New Zealand by claiming top honours on the opening speed test of this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. ...
New rally Focus makes winning start to career in NZ
Ford's new Focus RS World Rally Car made a winning debut on the Rally New Zealand by claiming top honours on the opening speed test of this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The 2004 version of the Focus RS WRC maintained its strong start and Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park ended today's first leg just 0.2 sec from a podium position in fourth with team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot in sixth.
It is exactly 12 months since Ford's radical new Focus RS made its rally debut in New Zealand. Martin and Park powered the 2004 evolution to fastest time on the first of the rally's 23 special stages on the edge of Auckland last night in front of a 10,000 strong crowd, with Duval and Prevot close behind in third.
Just minutes after his success, during a second pass through the same test, Martin's Focus RS was sprayed with stones by the car of rival Marcus Gronholm during the spectacular side-by-side racing. They broke the Focus' spotlights and shattered the windscreen, leaving the 28-year-old Estonian driver with a sliver of glass in his eye. The Ford BP team's doctor examined Martin and fortunately there was no injury.
After the opening two crowd-pleasing tests, the action today switched 140km north of Auckland to the Northland region in which the bulk of the first leg competition was based. Drivers faced five gravel stages on fast and sweeping country roads through lush, green farmland before returning to Auckland for another two passes over the test which started the rally 24 hours earlier. In all, drivers tackled 141.92km in the leg, the longest of the event.
Before today's competition began, drivers completed their second practice pass over the day's stages, following the initial passage two days ago. It was the first time in the history of the championship that this new practice format, known as the Mille Pistes system, has been used.
Once the action started, Martin settled into fourth and discovered a traditional difficulty of this event. He was second in the starting order by virtue of being joint championship leader. It meant he encountered plenty of slippery loose gravel on the roads, which he and other early starters swept clear to leave a cleaner, grippier and faster line for those behind.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "When we drove these stages early this morning in practice, the roads were totally damp and there was no loose gravel at all. Two hours later and the sun had dried everything and there was gravel everywhere. We had the right tyres but starting second on the road was hard work. It looked promising for us this morning when everything was damp but then it was so slippery."
Martin hoped to regain time during the afternoon tests, held over the same, and therefore cleaner, roads. However, he chose tyres that were too soft for the conditions and, despite briefly climbing to third, he was unable to recoup the time he had hoped. "I made the wrong choice and it cost us time," he admitted. "I had no grip for the last 20km of the long 48km stage. I was OK, the car was OK but I was sliding around too much to be able to set a good time. I couldn't attack and had to adjust my driving style to compensate."
Duval, starting in New Zealand for only the second time, struggled with his pace notes this morning but still held a confident fifth. "We make our notes at a slow speed compared to others and we had to pull over several times during practice to let other cars go by. It means we didn't always get the right line and therefore the right note and we also became caught in the dust from cars that passed us," said the 23-year-old Belgian.
However, Duval trusted his notes more on the repeat pass over the stages, having made several alterations during the morning run. He was edged out of fifth by Sebastien Loeb on the last Northland stage but powered through the final test to claim fastest time, Ford BP's second of the rally. He ended the leg just 5.5sec behind the joint championship leader. "We had no troubles with the car. The set-up feels perfect so we have no plans to change that before the second leg. Tomorrow's stages are generally faster than today's but we have the advantage of having pace notes from last year so that should help," he said.
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson was satisfied with the outcome of the day. "Both Markko and Francois were penalised by the running order which meant they had very gravely roads this morning. But both cars had no problems and we're in a good position for tomorrow when we'll benefit from a lower start position. Francois has enjoyed a great day. He is under orders to make sure he finishes to improve his experience but has driven both fast and well," he said.
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The day has seen three different leaders. Overnight front-runner Petter Solberg (Subaru) remained in front for two stages before Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) moved ahead. However, Gronholm rolled on the last corner of the next stage, dropping just 30 seconds but handing the lead back to Solberg. Then Harri Rovanpera (Peugeot) set a blistering time over the last Northland stage to move to the front. But his 1.0sec lead was not enough to hold off Solberg over the two final short stages and the Norwegian moved back ahead to lead the Finn by 5.0sec. Gronholm is just 0.2sec ahead of Martin with joint championship leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen), who suffered by 'sweeping' the roads as first car to start the stages, just behind. Team-mate Carlos Sainz lies seventh after brake problems and troubles with his car's launch control system
The second leg returns to the Northland region for eight more tests in the same area as today. After leaving Auckland at 05.30, drivers face two identical loops of four stages, covering 138.84km. The action is preceded by a second practice pass over the roads to be used later in the day. Competitors return to Auckland at 21.00.