Colin McRae and Nicky Grist head a trio of Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars on the top 10 leaderboard after a difficult opening leg of the Swedish Rally today. The Ford Rallye Sport duo are third after five speed tests in the barren snow-covered ...
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist head a trio of Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars on the top 10 leaderboard after a difficult opening leg of the Swedish Rally today. The Ford Rallye Sport duo are third after five speed tests in the barren snow-covered countryside north of Karlstad, team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya lie eighth and private entrants Janne Tuohino and Petri Vihavainen hold ninth.
Conditions were difficult on this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Mild overnight temperatures softened the ice covering the gravel tracks and a liberal layer of fresh snow handicapped the early starters as they cleared the way for the benefit of those further down the order.
Tyre choice, always a crucial factor in Sweden, was as tricky as ever. Rapidly rising temperatures this morning caught out most drivers who opted for ice tyres, expecting hard-packed ice. However, Pirelli's snow rubber was the option for the rest of the day for the Ford drivers as temperatures hovered just above freezing.
McRae's form improved as the leg went on. Sixth after the opening pair of tests, the 33-year-old Scot climbed into the top three on the fourth of the day's five stages, covering 124.05km, and rounded off the leg with fastest time on the final test.
"I'm happy we've finished the day better than we started it," he said. "It would be nicer to be closer to the leading two cars but third is pretty good considering we didn't have a great running position. It's good to set fastest time on the last stage - a shame we couldn't have done it on the other four! We must wait and see what conditions are like in the morning before deciding on our strategy."
Sainz, running one place ahead of McRae through the stages, suffered even more with the loose snow. After claiming seventh on the opening stage, a faulty windscreen wiper in the next test dropped him off the leaderboard. However, he fought back to end the day in eighth and with small time differences between the drivers, he is in a good position to climb into a points position tomorrow.
"Our running position wasn't good and it's unfair those in the best championship positions are effectively being penalised by having to drive in the worst conditions," he said. "There was a lot of loose snow which obviously made it slippery. If it stays mild tomorrow, stud retention will be difficult on the stages we've already used as we'll be driving on gravel in places but we'll continue to fight for points in the next two days."
Service for both McRae and Sainz was routine tonight, although the team fitted a different specification gearbox to Sainz's Focus RS ahead of tomorrow's leg.
Tuohino has been exceptional in a 2001 specification Focus RS. The Finn lay a remarkable fourth after the opening two stages as he revelled in the conditions. Despite slipping a little this afternoon he is still firmly in contention for a points finish.
Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin made an encouraging start on their debut in a World Rally Car. The 21-year-old Belgian driver is 19th in a Focus RS, slowly coming to terms with the transition from a two-wheel drive Puma, in which he won the Junior World Championship category in Monte Carlo, to a four-wheel drive WRC. His only trouble was a spin on the 40.51km Granberget, the longest and toughest stage of the rally.
"We came over two fast crests before a right-hand bend but I was caught out and spun," said Duval. "The engine stalled and although it re-started immediately, we had to wait for spectators to push us out. The time lost was because they didn't move quickly enough!"
Ford Rallye Sport director Malcolm Wilson reflected on a tough opening leg. "Because of the mild weather, the running order has been crucial. Tomorrow will be just as crucial because some stages are being used for a second time so tyre wear will be harsh. Some roads are down to gravel after the first run which will have a very big impact on studs. Keeping them in the tyres on the gravel will be very difficult," he said.
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Peugeot duo Harri Rovanpera and Marcus Gronholm dominated the day. Leader Gronholm set one fastest time and Rovanpera two and while the rest of the leaderboard was covered by a handful of seconds, the two Finns were more than 40sec ahead of McRae.
Jani Paasonen (Mitsubishi) surprised many en route to fourth but team-mate Francois Delecour ended a poor day by losing almost 20 minutes when he went off on the final stage.
Today's major retirement was Monte Carlo Rally winner Tommi Makinen (Subaru). The Finn had a torrid time as first car through the stages in the fresh snow. On the penultimate Fredriksberg test he went off and damaged the front of the car. It caused the engine to overheat and he stopped shortly after. It was also disappointing for Citroen.
Thomas Rådstrom went off on both the second and third stages, the latter incident costing eight minutes when he could not regain the road. Monte Carlo Rally sensation Sebastien Loeb lost three minutes when he too slid into a snowbank in Granberget and that test claimed a third victim when Richard Burns (Peugeot) dropped a minute by going off. Armin Schwarz (Hyundai) dropped almost five minutes by sliding off in Fredricksberg but it has been a good day for the team with Freddy Loix fifth and Juha Kankkunen seventh.
Six more stages lie in wait during the second leg, once again based around Hagfors. The first three are repeats of tests run today, including a second run through the long Granberget. Drivers leave Karlstad and return at 18.53 after 129.09km of competition. The weather forecast suggests temperatures rising to 5*C with little chance of fresh snow.