MÃ¤rtin and Duval show true grit in Sardinia gravel BP-Ford World Rally Team ended a demanding opening day of the Rally Italia Sardinia with Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park and team-mates FranÃ§ois Duval and StÃ©phane PrÃ©vot both solidly placed...
Märtin and Duval show true grit in Sardinia gravel
BP-Ford World Rally Team ended a demanding opening day of the Rally Italia Sardinia with Markko Märtin and Michael Park and team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot both solidly placed on the leaderboard. Märtin and Park's Ford Focus RS World Rally Car finished the longest leg of this three-day gravel event in fifth with their Belgian colleagues seventh in a similar car.
This 13th round of the 16-event FIA World Rally Championship is the third new rally of the season, following in the footsteps of Mexico and Japan. For many years Italy's round of the championship was based on the asphalt mountain roads behind the Italian Riviera resort of Sanremo. Conditions on the sun-kissed Mediterranean island of Sardinia, where air temperatures reached 31°C today, could hardly be more different.
Indeed, narrow and twisty tracks south of the rally base in Olbia provided a sharp contrast to the chic Costa Smeralda resort of Porto Cervo, which hosted last night's start. The six speed tests, covering 158.56km, varied from a soft and sandy surface to a rough, rocky road. What didn't alter was that the tight tracks were frequently lined by big stones on the verge, ensuring mistakes were severely punished. Forecasts that the event would turn out to be a rally of attrition appeared to be borne out, as 17 of the 67 starters failed to reach the end of the day.
Märtin ended the first loop of three tests in third in his Castrol-branded Focus RS, his only difficulty coming when he stalled the engine in the second stage and dropped 10 seconds. But the 28-year-old Estonian could not maintain his podium place amid visibility problems and dropped two positions during the repeat afternoon loop. However, he is only 7.4sec behind Carlos Sainz in fifth.
"I had a lot of gravel in my eyes and couldn't see properly," he said. "Every time we went into a dip or into the ruts in the road, sand kicked up onto the bonnet. It then blew into the car through the air ventilators and my eyes became full of dust."
His dislike of slower rallies was evident. "The stages are technical and not so enjoyable to drive. The third and sixth stages were so twisty that it made the roads in Cyprus look like a motorway! I'm not happy with my position. I don't know where we've lost time, apart from the visibility difficulties, but I need to make some changes for tomorrow," he added.
BP-Ford team-mates Duval and Prévot ended the morning in sixth in their Focus RS. The 23-year-old driver broke his front right wheel 10km after the start of the opening stage and drove cautiously for the rest of the test to prevent more serious damage. The spare wheel in the Focus RS was left-sided, so he had to contend with unpredictable handling for the next two stages. He opted for hard compound, half-cut Michelin rubber on his Focus RS but thought the surface was so loose that full cut rubber would have been a better option.
Duval slipped one place during the afternoon tests but is just 10.7sec behind sixth-placed Harri Rovanperä. "My tyres were too soft this afternoon," he said. "It was a bad choice and I knew after the first stage of the loop that we would struggle on the other two tests. My suspension didn't feel so good either but we didn't test here before the rally so we've been trying things out. Tomorrow we'll try to make better tyre choices and make some changes to the suspension set-up so we can push harder.
"They're difficult roads and this really isn't an easy rally. There's no room for manoeuvre at all. If you slide just a few centimetres off line then you are likely to hit the stones by the side of the road which could easily rip a wheel off," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson admitted he was disappointed by the team's performance this afternoon. "We made a strong start this morning but I'm puzzled as to what happened during the second loop of stages," he said. "Tomorrow's tests are faster and smoother so we'll make some changes to the damper settings on Markko's car and that should help."
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Petter Solberg (Subaru) made a superb start to open a 31 second lead over the opening three stages, two of which he won despite an overheating engine. His closest challenger was Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot), who felt his car was too big for the narrow tracks. Although the Finn won two of the afternoon tests to reduce the deficit, Solberg leads by 30.3sec. Championship leader Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) suffered initially by virtue of being first on the road amid slippery loose gravel. He dropped more than 30 seconds on the first test but recovered well to climb to third, just 4.5sec behind Grönholm. Carlos Sainz (Citroen) swiped a tree in the second stage but the Spaniard was otherwise untroubled en route to fourth. Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) was third initially, but handling problems and going off the road and stalling his engine on the third stage cost time. Brake difficulties in the afternoon prevented him from regaining lost ground. Mikko Hirvonen (Subaru) retired on the liaison section back to service after the third stage with a hydraulic problem in the gear change system while Toni Gardemeister (Skoda) crashed out midway through the opening test.
The bulk of the second leg is located further to the west on the slopes of Monte Lerno. After leaving Porto Cervo at 06.30, drivers face two identical loops of three speed tests, including two passes over the 34.21km Tandalo stage, the longest of the event. The two loops are split by a short lunchtime test further north, which will be broadcast on live television. The seven stages cover 147.99km and drivers return to Porto Cervo at 20.00 for the final overnight halt.