Rally of Portugal - Report end of leg one

Ford Martini drivers Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae won four of the day's 10 speed tests in their Ford Focus World Rally Cars as the team ended a gruelling opening leg of the Rally of Portugal with two cars in the top five. Sainz, who set two...

Ford Martini drivers Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae won four of the day's 10 speed tests in their Ford Focus World Rally Cars as the team ended a gruelling opening leg of the Rally of Portugal with two cars in the top five. Sainz, who set two fastest times, ended the leg in second overall while 'junior' team member Petter Solberg produced the performance of the day to hold fifth. McRae, who twice set fastest times, later retired with engine failure.

Fanatical Portuguese fans flocked into the hills in the Fafe region in their thousands to watch this fourth round of the FIA World Championship. Blue skies and high temperatures made for pleasant viewing on the gravel roads, and a breeze ensured the billowing dust kicked up by the cars quickly cleared.

Sainz and co-driver Luis Moya settled into a comfortable top three placing this morning before a power steering problem on the seventh stage cost 45 seconds, sending the Spanish pairing down to seventh. However, they fought back immediately, Sainz powering the Ford Focus to two fastest times and a second quickest during the final four tests to storm up to second.

"This is my first gravel rally in the Focus and it took time to get used to it on this surface," said 37-year-old Sainz. "It wasn't turning in quite as I liked this morning and sometimes I had to use the handbrake on third and fourth gear corners. We altered the settings and my confidence increased. Tomorrow we'll start second on the road and although there will be loose gravel on the roads, the stages are such that road position is less critical than today."

Despite enormous crowds, swelled by many Spaniards who made the journey over the border to cheer on Sainz, there were no crowd control difficulties. "I've been happily surprised how well-behaved and well-controlled they've been and that reflects well on the work put in by the organisers," he added.

Solberg and Phil Mills have been in sensational form, the 25-year-old Norwegian driver under no restrictions from team director Malcolm Wilson to drive with caution. Competing on only his 10th world championship event, he has set a string of top six times, trading places with drivers of the calibre of four-times champion Tommi Mäkinen and Didier Auriol, another ex-title winner.

"Malcolm told me I could drive flat out from the start - and that's exactly what I've done." said Solberg. "We've had no problems at all and I'm delighted to be in fifth tonight. My pace notes have worked well and it's been great fun to drive at maximum speed on these stages, even if the roads have been rutted at times. Fifth is fantastic but I want more and I know I can get more."

McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist began well, winning the day's first stage to lead the rally. They were lying third when their Focus lost fifth and sixth gears on the eighth stage and retirement came on the next test when the engine stopped 5km after the start.

It is thought the stress of driving without the high-speed gears may have contributed to the failure of the development engine, being used for the first time on the Focus cars in competition. "Our stage wins showed the times we're capable of producing in the Focus," said McRae. "The plan was to attack on the first three stages to make the best of our good position on the road. A fluid leak in the power steering system cost time then and later we lost more time after the car bounced out of the ruts and hit a rock. But we were well-placed and it's disappointing to be heading home early."

"The performance has been there for all to see," said Wilson. "Four fastest times from Carlos and Colin is excellent and Carlos is in a good position for tomorrow. It's easy to get depressed that Colin has retired but Ford has two cars in the top five which I think most teams would be happy with. Petter has been outstanding. In Kenya he proved he could drive intelligently. Here he's proved he can drive quickly."

News from our Rivals

It has been a remarkable leg with three other top-line drivers going out. Tommi Mäkinen (Mitsubishi) was down the order when he retired on stage nine after clipping a tree stump and breaking a steering bracket. The fourth stage ended the hopes of Juha Kankkunen (Subaru) and Alister McRae (Hyundai). Kankkunen punctured his radiator after sliding off the road and McRae stopped when a broken propshaft damaged the gearbox. Richard Burns dominated the opening stages, posting four fastest times to open up a 41 second lead before power steering troubles dropped him behind Sainz. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) took over in front, the Finn's only problem coming when he stalled the car and could not restart the engine. Team-mate Francois Delecour climbed to fourth before a broken shock absorber punctured a tyre and he slid back. Both Skodas are running outside the top 10, Luis Climent losing around 90 seconds after a turbo pipe failed. Seat is the only other team with both nominated cars still running, although Toni Gardemeister is off the leaderboard, the Finn losing 90 seconds after spinning and stalling the engine on the final test.

Tomorrow's Route

After a gruelling 14 hours at the wheel today, there's no respite tomorrow. The drivers leave Porto at 06.00 for the long journey to the town of Arganil, around which most of the leg is based. Competitors face nine more stages covering 179.25km, on tests rockier and rougher than today's, before returning to Porto at 21.00.

<pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 50min 28.6sec 2. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 50min 57.2sec 3. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 51min 11.0sec 4. H Rovanperä/R Pietiläinen FIN Toyota Corolla 1hr 51min 11.6sec 5. P Solberg/P Mills N Ford Focus 1hr 51min 15.9sec 6. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Seat Cordoba 1hr 51min 21.2sec 7. M Martin/M Park EE Toyota Corolla 1hr 51min 45.3sec 8. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 1hr 51min 50.9sec 9. K Eriksson/S Parmander S Hyundai Accent 1hr 51min 55.5sec 10 A Lopes/L Lisboa P Peugeot 206 1hr 52min 12.4sec

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Tommi Makinen , Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , Didier Auriol , Marcus Gronholm , Petter Solberg , François Delecour , Alister McRae , Juha Kankkunen , Luis Moya , Nicky Grist , Toni Gardemeister , Malcolm Wilson