The radical new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car made a superb debut today to end the opening leg of the Rally New Zealand in second place in the hands of Markko Martin and Michael Park. Amid huge media interest and expectation, the Ford Rally Sport...
The radical new Ford Focus RS World Rally Car made a superb debut today to end the opening leg of the Rally New Zealand in second place in the hands of Markko Martin and Michael Park. Amid huge media interest and expectation, the Ford Rally Sport pairing quickly settled into the new Focus RS, widely regarded as the most technically advanced rally car ever built, and held second throughout the day on the fast and flowing gravel speed tests north of Auckland.
Team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot lie 16th after hydraulic problems on their similar Focus RS while Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are one place ahead in their 2002-specification Focus RS. Both are competing on the New Zealand roads, acknowledged by drivers to be the best in the FIA World Championship calendar, for the first time.
The new Focus RS attracted massive attention at the spectacular start ceremony in the centre of Auckland last night and that continued when the rally began in earnest this morning. Competitors faced nine special stages covering 139.10km in the lush, green Northland region of North Island. After several days of warm, sunny weather the drivers left the sunshine behind them in the City of Sails and had to endure grey skies and rain which varied from drizzle to torrential. Although it made conditions unpredictable, it removed much of the advantage for those with a low start position who would have benefited in the dry by the early runners sweeping away the loose gravel to leave a cleaner driving line.
Martin was overjoyed with the performance of the Focus RS. "It's a bit of a dream to be in second really," admitted the 27-year-old Estonian. "We've had a great day with no problems. I've pushed very, very hard and I'm enjoying the feeling I have with the car. It's good fun to drive as well as being quick and because it's also easy to drive, I don't need to take risks.
"We managed much better than expected with our early start position. I expected to be further back down the leaderboard but the rain did us a favour because the roads didn't clean as much in the wet. It's been a real mix of conditions. One moment it was raining and the next it had stopped. Some roads were dry, others wet and some muddy so it made tyre selection difficult," added Martin, whose performance also belied his lack of experience of the rally. It is only his second start here.
Duval began well, despite encountering torrential rain on the opening group of stages. But difficulties with his car's automatic gear selection system at the end of the third stage, which required the 22-year-old Belgian to switch to the back-up manual version, were the start of a hydraulic problem which lasted for the rest of the day. The team replaced the valve block, pump and filter in the hydraulic system after stage five but the problem reappeared two stages later and the entire system was replaced at the end of the day in readiness for tomorrow's second leg.
"It's never easy when you tackle a rally for the first time, especially an event as fast as this," said Duval. "The hydraulic problem was frustrating and we've probably lost about two minutes in total. It's important to continue, both for me to gain more experience and for the team in the development of the new car, but it's been a hard day. We've made many changes to the pace notes during the stages and a combination of that and our problems means it's been difficult to concentrate fully."
Hirvonen benefited from a lower start position and his only problem was a spin which cost about 25 seconds. "I've seen quite a clean driving line for most of the day and in places the roads almost seem like asphalt," said the 22-year-old Finn. "When it rains it's very slippery and we've survived quite a few big slides towards ditches. We spun midway through the fifth stage at a tight hairpin. I had to restart the engine twice and that's why we lost so much time."
Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with Martin's first day performance. "He's in a fantastic position. His car has performed well and he's made very few changes to its set-up which is especially satisfying. We had a realistic approach to this rally. We wanted to be close to the Peugeots of Marcus Gronholm and Richard Burns. Markko is beating Richard and second only to Marcus so that's a real confidence boost to the team. Francois has been plagued by hydraulic problems. We thought we had solved the problem this afternoon but it wasn't the case so we've replaced the entire system tonight which we hope will cure it," he said.
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Reigning world champion Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot), who clinched the 2002 title here in New Zealand, controlled the leg. He took the lead on the opening stage and set seven fastest times en route to opening a 38.1sec overnight lead over Martin. Team-mate Richard Burns was fastest on the other two tests and the Briton lies fourth, one place ahead of the third French car of Harri Rovanpera. The Finn hoped to capitalise on a good start position but the wet weather meant there was a lot of standing water and mud on the road from previous competitors.
Petter Solberg (Subaru) was Martin's closest challenger in third, just 5.5sec behind the Ford driver. The Norwegian enjoyed a troublefree day but team-mate Tommi Makinen was seventh, the Finn unhappy with tyre choice in the unpredictable conditions and also feeling unwell for much of the day. The wet weather caused problems for the Citroen team this morning,
Sebastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae all suffering badly with misted windscreens. Didier Auriol (Skoda) led the Czech manufacturer's challenge in 10th, both he and team-mate Toni Gardemeister reporting difficulties with tyre choice in the constantly changing conditions. The day's major retirements were Armin Schwarz (Hyundai), who rolled heavily on the first stage, and Colin McRae who was struggling in 12th when a heavy landing after a jump on stage six caused his car's front left suspension to collapse.
The second leg is not only the longest of the rally but contains the longest special stage in the world championship calendar. The 59.00km Parahai/Ararua is the opening test of the day and is used for a second time in the afternoon - but this time divided into two stages. The leg is again based around the Paparoa service park but uses roads further to the west than those tackled today. After five tests in the north, competitors return to Auckland and end the leg with two runs under floodlights at the Manukau super special on the edge of the city. The day's action begins at 08.00 and ends at 20.20 after 150.43km of competition.