Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Francois Duval and StÃ©phane PrÃ©vot and team-mates Markko MÃ¤rtin and Michael Park lie second and fifth respectively after their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars dominated today's opening leg of the Rallye de France -...
Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Francois Duval and Stéphane Prévot and team-mates Markko Märtin and Michael Park lie second and fifth respectively after their Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars dominated today's opening leg of the Rallye de France - Tour de Corse. The Ford BP pair set a blistering pace over Corsica' s narrow and bumpy asphalt roads close to Ajaccio to win four of the six speed tests as the Focus RS reproduced exactly the same speed it demonstrated on sealed surface roads in Italy just two weeks ago.
Märtin and Park won three special stages and, after leading this 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship midway through today's quickfire 95.30km leg, only a spin during the opening test of the afternoon deprived the duo of the overnight lead. Duval and Prévot won one stage during a tremendous afternoon attack which carried the Belgian pair from sixth to second.
Two loops of three stages comprised the leg, the shortest of the three-day rally. The surface became slippery during the afternoon loop as a result of cars dragging gravel and dirt onto the roads during the first passage. Overcast skies but dry roads provided consistent conditions in the notoriously unpredictable Mediterranean mountains and temperatures were cool throughout. As a result tyre selection, often such a difficult challenge in Corsica, was reasonably straightforward.
Duval lists the rally as his favourite and quickly showed why. He ended the opening loop of stages in sixth, just 12.8sec from the lead. But the 22-year-old Belgian was third, first and second respectively on the afternoon tests to climb to second, just 3.9sec behind overnight leader Sebastien Loeb.
"It's a good start to the weekend to be second tonight," said Duval. "The Focus RS has been incredibly fast, the times that Markko and I have set show that clearly. This morning I was a little sleepy but it was a solid start and this afternoon I felt very confident. I enjoy repeated stages because it's much easier for young drivers like myself who don't have as much experience and knowledge of the roads as many others. The second time through the tests I can put the knowledge gained on the first run to good use. I enjoy difficult stages and today's tests were difficult. Tomorrow will be even harder as the stages are longer, but I'm looking forward to it."
Märtin started well and took the lead on the second stage, despite admitting that while the Castrol-backed Focus RS was running perfectly, he didn't have a good feeling. "The car was superb, it was just me," he said. "The grip changed constantly because of the varying road surface and the stages were bumpy. It was hard to get used to."
He built an advantage of 3.4sec over Loeb but lost the lead when he spun on the fourth stage. It cost 30 seconds but the pace at the head of the leaderboard was so intense that he dropped to seventh. Fastest time on the last two tests enabled Märtin to recover to fifth.
"It started as a good day and it finished as a good day," said the 27-year-old Estonian. "Unfortunately on the fourth stage I entered a corner a tiny bit too fast. We started to slide and had a half spin, ending up against the mountainside. We couldn't select reverse and had to wait for spectators to push us back onto the road again. It cost us the lead but we were going too fast so we deserved to spin, although we didn't deserve to lose so much time. We were pushing too much but I had a lot of confidence in the car. We pushed even harder in the last two stages to make up some time. Now we'll just have to try to make up as much time as we can. If we can make mistakes other people can do the same." Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, competing in Corsica for the first time, ended the day in 16th in their 2002 specification M-Sport-run Focus RS. The 23-year-old Finnish driver felt he was over-cautious this morning as the roads were not as slippery as he feared. "After the shakedown test yesterday, I expected the stages to be more slippery but they weren't so bad. I think I was too careful and I would have liked to have driven faster. I thought I had learned a lot and would be quicker the second time through the stages. But it seems I didn't learn as much as I thought because I wasn't that much faster this afternoon," explained Hirvonen.
Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with the day's events. "Markko made a fantastic start and drove according to his plan until a spin cost the lead. François became stronger and stronger as the day went on. His confidence has grown with every stage and his times show just how much faster he has driven as the day continued. The performance of both drivers proves how strong the Focus RS package is and I think we're in an excellent position," he said.
News from our Rivals
Rallye Sanremo winner Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) capitalised on Märtin's mistake to lead tonight, despite oversteering problems this morning. He set one fastest time. Marcus Grönholm (Peugeot) was well in contention in third, just 1.4sec behind Duval and 4.9sec ahead of Carlos Sainz (Citroen), who experienced similar problems to Loeb. Behind Märtin, world championship leader Richard Burns (Peugeot) held sixth but the third car of the French manufacturer did not enjoy such a good day. Gilles Panizzi struggled with gearbox and set-up problems and lies 11th. Colin McRae (Citroen) lost time with brake problems this morning while Petter Solberg (Subaru) rewarded his team with eighth position after mechanics worked through the night to rebuild his car after he rolled into a telegraph pole on the shakedown test yesterday. The only major retirement was Didier Auriol (Skoda) who retired at the start of the opening stage. A water valve in the cooling system leaked onto the ECU which operates the clutch and gearbox, causing a short circuit, and he was unable to start the test.
The second leg is the longest of the rally and one of the longest in the entire championship. The format is similar to today, with two loops of three stages but the competition is much more demanding. Drivers face 190.00km of action, both to the north and the south of Ajaccio, with four of the day's six special stages exceeding 38km. The day begins at 07.30 and drivers return to Ajaccio for the final overnight halt at 19.28.