WRC

Rally of Great Britain: Ford leg one summary

Märtin escapes Welsh mud to lie fourth on Rally GB BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park ended today's opening leg of the Rally GB in fourth after a day of treacherously muddy conditions in the forests of south Wales.

Märtin escapes Welsh mud to lie fourth on Rally GB

BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park ended today's opening leg of the Rally GB in fourth after a day of treacherously muddy conditions in the forests of south Wales. Twice they escaped unscathed after their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car slid into ditches and they are just 35 seconds behind overnight leader Sebastien Loeb.

Team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot led this 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship after last night's spectacular opening speed test in the dockland area of the capital city of Cardiff. They avoided major problems in the mud but a brake problem on the final special stage cost 90 seconds and they lie seventh.

Anyone who hoped the decision to move the rally from November to September would lead to drier and faster conditions over the gravel forest tracks was in for a big disappointment when they woke this morning. Heavy rain overnight and fog on high ground gave a more than passable impersonation of a traditional winter Rally GB. The only thing that had changed was that the temperature was a few degrees higher!

This morning drivers faced two identical loops of two special stages through Brechfa Forest, totalling more than 115km. There was just a 10-minute tyre and refuel zone between them offering limited opportunity to make modifications to the cars. Always slippery and widely regarded as the most difficult roads on the rally, the rain made these tests evil. Two passes through Rheola, at 32.48km the longest special stage of the rally, ended a leg which offered 183.31km of competition.

Although there was no standing water, slimy mud made the hard packed stony roads hazardous. The more cars that passed through the stages, the more difficult conditions became, as Märtin and Park discovered. After briefly sliding into a ditch during the first pass through the 27.97km Trawscoed, they had an even closer escape on the second run.

"About 1km from the end, we came over a crest and landed in a ditch on the left side of the road," said the 28-year-old Estonian driver. "The car bounced across the track into a ditch on the right, and back again into the same ditch on the left. It finally ended up back on the road and we carried on. I closed my eyes twice - that was how close we were to a big accident! The car picked up so much foliage from the ditches that I couldn't see through the windscreen initially and when it cleared the screen was broken."

Both incidents cost little time and Märtin never finished outside the top four on any of the seven stages in his Castrol-branded Focus RS. "I tried hard this morning but the roads were so slippery. The conditions were so tricky that there was no difference between now and when the event was held in November. The surface this afternoon was totally different. It was less stony and I preferred it that way. We're falling away from the top three and that is something we must put right tomorrow," he added.

After their opening stage victory last night, Duval and Prévot settled into sixth as they avoided trouble. "Even where there wasn't mud, the hard stone base of the road meant it felt like driving on slippery cobblestones," said the 23-year-old Belgian driver. "I think it was even more slippery the second time than it was earlier, and it was so difficult to predict the conditions because the grip wasn't consistent."

He changed the settings on the differentials for the afternoon stages and that provided a better feeling with the car. But on the second pass through the Rheola test a brake problem cost one place on the leaderboard. "Everything was going OK but after 16km the brake pedal went to the floor and for the rest of the stage I had just the throttle and the handbrake to work with. Apart from that it has been a good day. My pace notes have worked well. We made a few changes but nothing too much," added Duval.

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said a big impact under Duval's footwell bent the chassis and floor pan. It also broke part of the pedal box, meaning that the front brakes and clutch no longer worked. The team fitted a new pedal box during the final service this evening.

News from our Rivals

Championship leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) enjoyed the best of the conditions in the wet this morning and opened a 20sec lead by winning the first two tests. However, Petter Solberg (Subaru) took up the challenge, moving up the order from fourth, despite engine overheating problems. He ended the day 8.4sec behind Loeb, having set fastest time on each of the last three stages. Grönholm found conditions slippery this morning and revised his car's differential settings to improve the traction out of corners. He is 7.5sec behind Solberg, despite damaging his car when hitting a gatepost on the final test. Fifth-placed Carlos Sainz (Citroen) could not match the pace of the leading quartet and was unhappy with his car's handling all day. Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) also felt uncomfortable with his car this morning and lost 2min 30sec on the final stage when a broken gearbox left him with only third gear. However, he fared better than team-mate Daniel Carlsson, who retired after going off during the first pass through Rheola. Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) lost time this morning when his overheating engine switched to safe mode after mud and leaves blocked the radiator, leaving him down on power. He also spun on the final stage. Toni Gardemeister (Skoda) was 11th after spinning into a ditch on stage three and later complaining of handling problems, but team-mate Armin Schwarz rolled into retirement from 10th place on the final stage.

Tomorrow's Route

The majority of the second leg is based north of Swansea around the Epynt military land. Drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages there, covering more than 91km in total. The only opportunity for service is a 10-minute tyre and fuel zone during which only two mechanics and the drivers can work on the rally cars. Competitors head back south for a test at Margam before a repeat of the super special stage in Cardiff which opened the rally last night. After leaving Swansea at 07.15, drivers face 120.72km of competition before returning to the city for the final overnight halt at 19.59.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team