Sanremo Rally - leg 1

Three Ford Focus World Rally Cars lie in the top eight after today's opening leg of Italy's Sanremo Rally, round 12 of the FIA World Rally Championship. Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya led the Ford Martini team attack in fourth while Italians Piero ...

Three Ford Focus World Rally Cars lie in the top eight after today's opening leg of Italy's Sanremo Rally, round 12 of the FIA World Rally Championship. Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya led the Ford Martini team attack in fourth while Italians Piero Liatti and Carlo Cassina delighted their army of Italian fans by holding fifth. Colin McRae and Nicky Grist lie eighth.

Huge crowds flocked into the mountains high above the Riviera resort of Sanremo to witness the day's eight speed tests, covering 144km. The organisers' 'race track' format was used for the first time whereby just two different special stages were contested all day. The tests were run twice in one direction during the morning before being reversed for the afternoon - the first time this has been done widely at the sport's top level for 20 years.

Cool but dry conditions made tyre selection straightforward, with just the odd early morning damp patch in the shade to trap the unwary. Temperatures no higher than 19*C and the less twisty nature of the roads also placed lower demands on the rubber of the Ford Martini team's tyre partner, Michelin.

Sainz and Moya started cautiously but after solving handling troubles, the Spaniards quickly climbed the order. They continued to fine-tune suspension settings and Sainz declared himself happy with the set-up by this evening.

"Once we altered the set-up to improve the handling, the car felt good," said 38-year-old Sainz. "Our times improved as did our position although I'm a little disappointed not to be closer to those ahead of us. I feel I'm driving well and hopefully we can progress and climb further on tomorrow's longer stages."

Ford Martini team-mates Liatti and Cassina's rise up the leaderboard mirrored that of Sainz. The two were close throughout the day and just half a second separated the two Ford drivers as the cars arrived back in Sanremo tonight. Their most dramatic incident came close to the end of the second stage. "About 2km from the finish smoke started to come into the car," said Liatti. "When we reached the finish flames were coming from underneath and we had to jump out and use our fire extinguisher to put them out." The fire was traced to an oil leak in a differential and the Focus was restored to health.

Liatti, driving a Focus and using the team's new semi-automatic gearchange system for only the second time in competition, was determined to perform well on his home rally. "At the start of every stage I grit my teeth, I screw up my eyes, I tell myself it's time for full attack and I drive flat out. I feel I've driven as well as ever today and tomorrow must be the same," he said.

Perhaps the biggest plaudits of the day were reserved for McRae and Grist. Just 11 days after an operation to set the cheekbone broken in his accident in Corsica, he was back in competition and showed he had lost none of the determination for which he is renowned.

"Because of my injury I was not able to test here before the rally so I spent the whole day trying to find the perfect set-up for the car," he said. "Now I think I'm there and hopefully we'll benefit from that tomorrow. Tonight I'm more tired than I expected. I felt pretty good up until lunchtime but then I began to get quite weary."

Despite his fatigue, McRae, who lost time on the opening two stages when his Focus developed too much understeer, excelled to set third fastest time on the day's penultimate test. "I need to climb the field tomorrow. We've done well today but you don't score points for finishing eighth and scoring points is what I'm here for," added McRae, who has been piped in and out of every service area by fan Martin Hewins.

Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson was satisfied with the day's results. "I think the team suffered from the appalling weather encountered at our test. All three drivers have been changing their car's set-up to make them suited to the dry roads and I think we'll see the benefits tomorrow. I'm encouraged Colin has come back strongly. He's tired but has shown the accident has taken nothing away," he said.

News from our Rivals

Gilles Panizzi and Francois Delecour (both Peugeot) dominated the day, winning seven of the eight stages. Rally leader Panizzi, fastest on four tests, was untroubled but Delecour, winner of three, overcame early problems with his car's handling and its anti-lag system. Team-mate and championship leader Marcus Grönholm lies sixth. Richard Burns, lying third, and team-mate Simon Jean-Joseph (both Subaru) have enjoyed a troublefree day, both experimenting with different tyre compounds. Handling problems have been commonplace for many drivers and Tommi Mäkinen and Freddy Loix (both Mitsubishi) and Didier Auriol (Seat) were among those to suffer. Auriol's team-mate Toni Gardemeister lost time with three punctures during the leg. It was a difficult day for Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson (both Hyundai). Eriksson was another unhappy with the set-up of his car while McRae's main problem was broken power steering on stages three and four.

Tomorrow's Route

The second leg is the longest and most demanding. After a 06.30 start, drivers face seven stages totalling 197.93km in the same region before returning to Sanremo at 22.02. The day follows a similar format to today with two stages contested twice in the same direction in the morning before being run the opposite way in the afternoon. <pre> Leaderboard after Leg 1 1. G Panizzi/H Panizzi F Peugeot 206 1hr 35min 59.3sec 2. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Peugeot 206 1hr 36min 14.7sec 3. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 36min 25.8sec 4. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus 1hr 36min 51.6sec 5. P Liatti/C Cassina I Ford Focus 1hr 36min 52.1sec 6. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 36min 54.7sec 7. T Mäkinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 36min 55.1sec 8. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus 1hr 37min 08.6sec 9. S Jean-Joseph F Subaru Impreza 1hr 37min 18.4sec 10 F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 1hr 37min 33.4sec

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About this article
Series WRC
Drivers Tommi Makinen , Colin McRae , Carlos Sainz , Freddy Loix , Richard Burns , Gilles Panizzi , Didier Auriol , Marcus Gronholm , François Delecour , Alister McRae , Kenneth Eriksson , Luis Moya , Nicky Grist , Toni Gardemeister , Piero Liatti , Malcolm Wilson , Simon Jean-Joseph , Carlo Cassina