Ford Rallye Sport drivers Markko Märtin and Michael Park won three consecutive speed tests in the spectacular new Focus RS World Rally Car this afternoon before being forced to retire from second place in the Rally New Zealand.
On a dramatic second leg of the car's eagerly-awaited debut, they slashed the advantage of leader Marcus Grönholm over the flowing gravel roads until an engine problem ended a hugely encouraging run, during which the Focus demonstrated its potential by being the only car to challenge the world champions.
Team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Pr
évot enjoyed a troublefree run in a similar Focus RS to climb to 10th after yesterday's troubles, setting another fastest time for the Ford team on the penultimate super special stage. The third Ford pairing of Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen also moved up to 11th in their older-specification Focus RS.
The second day of this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship was again based around the small town of Paparoa in the Northland region of North Island. Today's special stages were further to the west and included one of the sport's great challenges, the classic 59km Parahi / Ararua test which is the longest in the championship calendar. The leg ended with two runs under floodlights at the Manukau super special stage on the edge of Auckland.
In contrast to the first day, there were only a few rain showers and the leading cars enjoyed the best of the conditions on roads swept clear of loose gravel by earlier starters.
Märtin, second overnight, lost time through Parahi / Ararua with a hydraulic problem which prevented the car's active differentials and automatic gearchange system from working properly. "It was difficult to drive because I had to lift off the throttle for every single gearchange and the car slid in every corner," said the 27-year-old Estonian. "It wasn't fun to drive but fortunately the time lost wasn't too great."
The team replaced the entire hydraulic system in the following service park and Märtin then reeled off three consecutive fastest stage times, reducing Grönholm's 61.2sec lead to 26.2sec as the Finn rolled. However, Märtin spun his Focus RS 5km from the finish during a repeat run over the Ararua roads, then two kilometres later the engine stopped and would not restart.
"I'm obviously disappointed but I think we've given some people a fright," he said. "The car is unbelievably fun to drive and because we were competing in the same conditions as Marcus today, everyone could see the full potential of the Focus. We were so fast into corners that I surprised myself and sometimes the speed was such that it was hard to get all the pace notes in. It's like being in a Playstation game! I found some extra speed and I think we're now on the pace of the Peugeots. We expected to have some problems on a car that is so different from its predecessor but I'm sure that with a bit more time we'll find the same level of reliability as we had with the old car," he added.
Team director Malcolm Wilson described Märtin's retirement as disappointing but said: "We were having a great day with three consecutive fastest times which is pleasing on the car's debut. We'll return home from New Zealand knowing that we have a competitive package and that's hugely encouraging. I'm sad for Markko because he's driven so well but his enthusiasm for the car is another major plus for the whole team. Until we examine the engine we won't know the exact nature of the problem but the signs indicate a loss of compression."
Duval was first car on the road throughout the day and the loose gravel proved a major disadvantage. However the 22-year-old Belgian, competing for the first time in New Zealand, relished the flowing roads and as well as climbing onto the top 10 leader board he gained vital experience. "I think we had a road sweeper attached to our car!" he joked. "It's a difficult rally and we've continued to fine tune our pace notes because they're not perfect but the stages are fantastic and the car has been beautiful to drive today. Malcolm Wilson has stressed how important it is to finish the rally and I've tried to find a good rhythm between finishing a stage and being fast on it."
Road conditions for Hirvonen, second to start behind Duval, were little better, but he too learned much. He lost a minute on the opening stage after spinning and being unable to select reverse gear and spun again close to the finish of the Ararua test as two long stages on a hard surface began to take their toll on tyre grip. "I was pretty unhappy after our first mistake but then the day went well until the last regular stage when I spun again. The loose gravel made the roads slippery and I had to be quite cautious so as not to make any more errors," he said.