Markko Martin and Michael Park ended a treacherously slippery opening leg of the Rally of Great Britain in third as their Ford Rallye Sport team placed all four Focus RS World Rally Cars on the top 10 leaderboard for much of the day. Youth came to...
Markko Martin and Michael Park ended a treacherously slippery opening leg of the Rally of Great Britain in third as their Ford Rallye Sport team placed all four Focus RS World Rally Cars on the top 10 leaderboard for much of the day. Youth came to the fore as the 27-year-old Estonian driver engaged in a thrilling battle with 27-year-old Norwegian Petter Solberg, returning to the overnight halt in Cardiff just 2.7sec behind.
Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were fourth in a similar Focus RS, 13.9sec behind Martin, while Colin McRae and Derek Ringer recovered well to end the day in seventh after sliding off the road early this morning. Mark Higgins and Bryan Thomas rounded off the Ford foursome in 12th in their Focus RS, the mid-Wales driver delighting the huge crowds on only his second outing with the team.
Yesterday's torrential rain stayed away but the gravel forest roads in south-west Wales were slimy and slippery as a result of the soaking. Clear blue skies helped dry the tracks as the day progressed but low early morning sunshine created additional problems, blinding drivers as it pierced the damp trees.
Six speed tests covering 132.58km were scheduled on the first full day of competition on this 14th and final round of the FIA World Rally Championship but the second run through the 23.12km Brechfa test was cancelled due to the volume of spectators.
Overnight leader Martin escaped unscathed after several scares on the opening two special stages. A more controlled, but equally fast, approach during the afternoon kept him close to Solberg. "It was so slippery this morning that we struggled to keep the car on the road but somehow we survived, although we went beyond the limit on several occasions," he said. "I didn't take any risks this afternoon. I calmed down and felt more relaxed. Because it was so slippery this morning, I expected every corner to be just as bad this afternoon but it wasn't so."
Sainz enjoyed a troublefree day, the 40-year-old Madrid-based driver's only concern being a poor tyre choice for the second run through Trawscoed. "We chose quite hard compound rubber with open cuts because we expected the roads to be very muddy after being used earlier. But it was drier than we thought with quite a hard stony base and we should have opted for a more closed pattern. We're not far from a podium place and only a few seconds cover second, third and fourth," said Sainz.
McRae suffered the worst possible start when he slid into a ditch 9km into the Brechfa stage, losing a minute. "We slid off at a junction and the car got stuck in the mud. It was slippery going into the braking area and we missed the corner," he said. He dropped to 17th but fought back well and believes a podium place is still possible. "We'll try to have a clean run for the next two days but it won't be easy. We'll raise the pace and see what the weather brings. There's been so much sunshine today we should have been on the beach rather than in the forests!" he joked.
Higgins gained in confidence during the day after damaging the driver's door by swiping a tree when a heavy landing unbalanced the steering. He held 10th until a 10 second time penalty was incurred when he left the final service park late after his car's engine briefly failed to start. "I'm pretty much where I expected to be and also where I would like to be," he said. "We will have a good road position tomorrow. The last forest stage was difficult as we had to drive it at dusk. The light was strange and it was hard to see properly."
News from our Rivals
World champion Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) emphasised his mastery of the year by setting fastest time on every forest stage to open a lead of 48.3sec over Petter Solberg (Subaru). The Finn is bidding to equal Didier Auriol's 1992 record of six victories in a season. Team-mate Richard Burns lies eighth after sliding off on the second stage, flattening the exhaust and struggling to the finish with much reduced power. The third car of Harri Rovanpera is fifth despite clutch troubles and a 10 second penalty for a jump start after his handbrake lever came loose. Tommi Makinen (Subaru) made a sluggish start with two spins on the opening stage but recovered to hold sixth while Francois Delecour (Mitsubishi) has been in some discomfort with back pains following his accident in Australia earlier this month. Armin Schwarz and co-driver Manfred Hiemer (Hyundai) had to resort to hand signals when their intercom failed this morning. Justin Dale (Mitsubishi) was the day's major retirement, the Briton rolling on the first stage and being withdrawn with a damaged roll cage. World champion motorbike racer Valentino Rossi also retired when he slid off on the first test.
The second leg is the shortest of the rally but features one of the longest special stages in the championship season. After leaving Cardiff at 06.00, competitors start the day with the massive 54.69km Resolfen test, high in the mountains above the Vale of Neath. Drivers also face two runs in Halfway Forest, where the route leaves the gravel for a brief section on the undulating asphalt of the Epynt military ranges. In all they face six stages, five in the forests and a third and final run at the Cardiff super special. They will complete 117.04km of competition before returning to the Welsh capital at 20.30.