Ford's junior drivers Petter Solberg and Phil Mills scorched into second place on today's opening leg of the Rally New Zealand to head a trio of Ford Focus World Rally Cars in the top six on this eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Ford's junior drivers Petter Solberg and Phil Mills scorched into second place on today's opening leg of the Rally New Zealand to head a trio of Ford Focus World Rally Cars in the top six on this eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Ford Martini team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were fourth and Colin McRae and Nicky Grist sixth after a day dominated by the road conditions on the speed tests south of the rally base in Auckland.
Solberg and Mills set fastest time on two of the day's eight special stages as the 25-year-old Norwegian driver reproduced the form which has earmarked him as a potential world champion of the future.
Windy but dry conditions made a pleasant change from the torrential rain which blighted this event for the past two years but created difficulties for those drivers among the first few competitors to tackle the stages. A liberal covering of loose gravel meant they unwittingly swept away the stones to the benefit of those further down the order. Once a clear driving line appeared, times among the front-runners became quicker.
Solberg benefited hugely but his pace was not purely down to better conditions. On the second attempt at the 16.75km Te Papatapu, when all competitors enjoyed roads cleaned during the first passage, he posted fifth fastest time. His only problem came on the opening 32.37km Te Akau North when, with the rear brakes not working, he slid into a bank, crumpling the front bumper and losing around 15 seconds.
"The stages are superb to drive on and the flowing nature of the roads encourages you to drive quickly," he said. "I've had the best of the conditions but you still have to drive quickly to take advantage of that and I've been able to do that today. Tomorrow may be different because if it stays dry I will have worse conditions but it's all part of the learning process I must go through."
Sainz and Moya were untroubled, apart from a spin on Te Akau North. "I started the day in the middle of the order and ended it in the middle of the order so I'm quite happy," said the 38-year-old Madrid-based driver. "I didn't expect to gain much from my running position and neither did I expect to lose much and that's how it turned out. We must wait and see what the conditions bring tomorrow. If it's dry, I expect we'll be in a similar position to today."
McRae and Grist, running second on the road, expected to lose large amounts of time. "We knew it was going to be hard for us," said 31-year-old McRae. "We thought if we could keep the gap down to about 40 seconds we would have done well but a minute is a lot to make up. Tomorrow's stages are faster and there's not as much gravel on the surface. However, we've been faster than Richard Burns on virtually all the stages and as championship leader, he's a good yardstick by which to measure our pace." McRae ended the day in style with fastest time on both super special stages at Manukau.
His only problem came after the third stage when a broken turbo wastegate left his Focus with reduced boost pressure and another test to tackle before service. He used wire from the tool kit in his car to re-join the wastegate to the manifold and restore the pressure to virtually normal level, reducing the time loss to a handful of seconds. McRae was eagerly looking at the weather forecast this evening. As the drivers are re-seeded into their overnight positions for tomorrow's second leg, he will benefit from running lower down the order if it stays dry. However, if it rains, the water will pack the loose gravel and his advantage will have gone.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson supervised routine service on all three Focus cars this evening and said: "The conditions played a major part but we mustn't take anything away from Petter who drove superbly and fully deserves to be second. Carlos has neither benefited nor lost out from running fifth on the road while Colin has suffered most. However, his mechanical knowledge proved invaluable when he had to make repairs and the time saved could be vital by the end of the rally."
News from our Rivals
Frenchman Francois Delecour (Peugeot) celebrated Bastille Day by posting three fastest times to lead the rally with team-mate Marcus Grönholm in third. Tommi Mäkinen and Freddy Loix (both Mitsubishi) struggled with suspension and differential problems respectively, the reigning world champion ending the day in ninth and Loix in 16th. Richard Burns (Subaru), running first on the road, suffered most from the conditions and lies eighth. By contrast Kenneth Eriksson (Hyundai) made the most of his position to climb to seventh, despite turbo problems on the opening test. Team-mate Alister McRae was unable to make the same impact after turbo Problems on both the first and sixth stages. The only major retirement was Toni Gardemeister (Seat) who crashed on the first stage after landing awkwardly following a fast jump. The car was destroyed but Gardemeister and co-driver Paavo Lukander escaped serious injury.
The second leg heads north of Auckland and is the longest of the rally. After leaving the city at 07.00, drivers face nine stages covering 176.76km, based around the town of Maungaturoto, before returning to Auckland at 21.00. The key part of the day, and the rally, will be the 59km Parahi / Ararua test. It is the longest stage in world rallying for almost 15 years and forms over a third of the day's competitive distance.
Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 1hr 16min 36.2sec 2. P Solberg/P Mills N Ford Focus 1hr 16min 45.9sec 3. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 16min 49.4sec 4. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 17min 06.3sec 5. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 17min 28.1sec 6. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 1hr 17min 35.8sec 7. K Eriksson/S Parmander S Hyundai Accent 1hr 17min 36.3sec 8. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 17min 42.9sec 9. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 18min 00.8sec 10 D Auriol/D Giraudet F Seat Cordoba 1hr 18min 14.1sec