Rallye Sanremo: Ford leg one summary

Martin and Duval start well for Ford on The Italian Job Ford BP Rallye Sport ended today's opening leg of Italy's Rallye Sanremo with both Focus RS World Rally Cars holding strong top five positions. Markko Martin and Michael Park lie second in...

Martin and Duval start well for Ford on The Italian Job

Ford BP Rallye Sport ended today's opening leg of Italy's Rallye Sanremo with both Focus RS World Rally Cars holding strong top five positions. Markko Martin and Michael Park lie second in their Castrol-backed car with Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot in fifth after a long and demanding day's competition over narrow and winding asphalt roads in the mountains above the Italian Riviera resort.

Despite being round 11 of the 14-event FIA World Rally Championship, the Italian classic is the first of the season's traditional pure asphalt events and the first of three sealed surface rallies in four weeks. The Focus RS confirmed the speed displayed on its asphalt debut in Germany in July with both Ford BP drivers setting a front-running pace in difficult conditions. Martin and Park won two of the day's six speed tests, comprising 142.14km of the 551.24km route.

Early Autumn in the mountains can bring a variety of difficulties and although the rain kept away, fog was a hazard in the early morning and evening. Many sections were held under a thick canopy of trees and cool temperatures kept the shaded areas damp while leaves falling onto the road created slippery patches. Both offered inconsistent conditions for cars fitted with dry weather tyres and were always likely to catch out unwary drivers.

Leaves created an early problem of another kind for Martin and Park. Their Focus RS was fast on both opening stages but, on each, leaves sucked into the radiator grille blocked the air flow and sent engine temperatures rising. The engine switched into low power 'safe' mode to prevent damage and the 27-year-old Estonian dropped about 20 seconds but still held fifth. The team fitted different cooling fans to Martin's car and he recovered in magnificent fashion to set fastest time on each of the next two stages to climb to second.

He was second fastest on the final two tests to end the leg 32.4sec behind Sebastien Loeb, despite losing bite in the car's brakes close to the end of the last stage and a front right wheel puncture shortly before halfway. Michelin's ATS anti-deflation mousse worked perfectly and the time loss was restricted to just a handful of seconds.

"The end result today was very good, it was just the early morning that wasn't kind to us," said Martin. "I felt comfortable with the car and Michelin's tyres have been fantastic. In fact the whole package has worked well. Sebastien has a good lead but it's not over yet. One spin can wipe out that time margin and a mistake in tyre selection by any of the top drivers on the two long stages tomorrow will mean they're history as far as winning is concerned. Those two stages will be very important to the final results. They could be the deciding tests. I'm thinking about this rally and not the championship so we'll try and attack Sebastien tomorrow but I don't think I can go much faster."

Duval and Prevot were second fastest on the opening stage and the Belgian pairing continued to post consistently quick times. They also encountered high engine temperatures on the opening pair of stages, but to a far lesser degree than their team-mate, and their major difficulty came on the final test when they had to drive for about 10km in fog.

"I'm delighted with our position tonight," said the 22-year-old driver. "It was hard for me in the fog this evening but we survived and it's been a good day. We changed a lot of pace notes this morning because they weren't precise enough but I felt confident with them which was important because the roads were damp and slippery under the trees. Tomorrow we'll push harder. Our position on the road will be about the same as today so we can expect similar conditions."

Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a good day for the team. "Markko has driven well to recover from his time loss this morning and Francois has also enjoyed a good run. He was unfortunate to lose time in the fog tonight but I'm pleased with his performance today," he said.

Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen retired their M-Sport run Focus RS at the end of the third stage with a broken cam belt in the engine. Twenty-three-year-old Hirvonen made a solid start to hold 13th after the opening two tests in his 2002-specification car. However, on the final downhill section towards the finish of the 19.19km Cosio, he hit trouble. "About 3km from the finish the car lost all power," he said. "It was downhill so we cruised to the finish. I thought it was an electrical problem but once we cleared the time control I lifted the bonnet and saw the cam belt was broken."

News from our Rivals

The day has been dominated by Martin and Loeb. The Frenchman was fastest on the first two stages and quickest on both again when they were repeated in the afternoon. He leads by 32.4sec. Marcus Gronholm and Gilles Panizzi (both Peugeot) admitted they were driving to the limit of themselves and their cars. The Finn lost time on the opening test with a soft brake pedal and they were third and sixth respectively. Team-mate and championship leader Richard Burns had no confidence in himself or his car and despite changing the set-up, he could make no real impression. He is 10th. Carlos Sainz (Citroen) is fourth, a gritty performance from the Spaniard who underwent an operation to remove kidney stones on Saturday and twice had to visit hospital here during the recce in considerable discomfort. Team-mate Colin McRae lies seventh, the Scot spinning on the second stage. Rally Australia winner Petter Solberg, debuting a new roll-control suspension system, broke his suspension's top mount on the second stage and both he and team-mate Tommi Makinen regretted a tyre choice that was too soft for the opening group of tests. Makinen is eighth but Solberg retired just 2km from the final service when his car ran out of fuel. The day's only other major retirement was Toni Gardemeister (Skoda) who rolled heavily when his car's brakes failed on the second stage.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg is the longest of the rally. Drivers tackle 149.10km of special stages, split into just four tests. The day includes two runs over the massive 52.30km Teglia, which runs from west to east across the backbone of the mountains. It is the longest asphalt stage in the 2003 championship and the second longest of all behind the 59km Parahai / Ararua stage in New Zealand. Competitors leave Sanremo at 07.00 and return for the second overnight halt at 19.20.

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About this article
Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team , M-Sport