Injured Ford duo fighting fit for points in Spain
Ford Rallye Sport’s wounded warriors battled bravely against injury and illness during today’s opening leg of the Catalunya Rally and were rewarded when frontline drivers Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and Spanish duo Carlos Sainz and Marc Marti ended the day in the manufacturers’ points.
The marathon 936km leg in the Tarragona region of Spain, south of Barcelona, ended with McRae heading the team’s challenge in seventh in his Ford Focus RS World Rally Car on this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Scot is just 4.9sec ahead of Sainz with a third Focus RS driven by Markko Märtin and Michael Park just 5.0sec behind in ninth.
The abrasive asphalt roads provided a stern test for the Pirelli tyres fitted to the Focus cars. While temperatures topping 25°C were ideal for the sun-loving Spaniards who packed the speed tests to see their heroes in action, the heat did nothing to help hard-working brakes. Indeed the crowds were such that this morning’s opening special stage was cancelled for safety reasons, leaving five tests covering 164.06km for competitors to attack.
McRae drove with bruised ribs and two fingers on his left hand heavily strapped following his accident in Corsica two weeks ago while Sainz was still suffering from a sore neck following Monday’s testing crash which prevented regular co-driver Luis Moya from starting. The two were separated by no more than a handful of seconds all day, McRae grabbing the advantage on the final stage.
“My hand has been a little painful although not as bad as I feared but I’m sure it’ll feel worse by Sunday night,” said 33-year-old McRae. “My back and neck are sore and I feel very tired. The team fitted a second gear stick on the left of the steering wheel to give me the option of changing with either hand but I’ve used the left all day because I can grip the wheel better with my right hand. I’ve not reached for the wrong gear lever once which is good because I can’t afford to take any chances.
“The stages this afternoon have been quite dirty as cars have dragged gravel onto the road where they cut the inside of bends. Tomorrow and Sunday should be better for us because the road surface is smoother but slippier and that will make things more even,” added McRae.
Sainz, starting a record 155th world rally and his first with replacement co-driver Marti, quickly acclimatised to his fellow Spaniard despite only two days’ practice and a brief test session together yesterday.
“I’m happy to get to the end of the leg because it’s been a long day and I’m tired,” said Sainz. “It’s been difficult but Marc has found a good rhythm on the pace notes. I was expecting more problems but he’s settled in well and deserves praise.
“It’s a special feeling for both us competing in Spain. Although I can’t hear the fans on the stages it gives me a warm feeling when I enter the service park and see them all cheering and shouting,” he said.
Märtin, suffering from an ear infection and recovering from ‘flu, has been a match for his team-mates all day. “It’s been slippery on the gravel but I’m enjoying the rally and learning a lot. I didn’t push so hard in the long final stage but when I reached the end our Pirelli tyres were in perfect condition so maybe I should have attacked more,” he said.
Armin Kremer and Dieter Schneppenheim are 16th in another Focus RS, the Germans right on the pace they set themselves in their 2001 specification car. “My target was to be no more than 2sec/km slower than the leader and ideally about 1.5sec/km slower and that’s where we are,” said Kremer, who lost time after having to drive for 10km behind a slower car on the final stage.
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Tour de Corse winner Gilles Panizzi (Peugeot) lived up to his pre-event billing as favourite to set fastest time on every stage to lead team-mate Richard Burns by 26.1sec. Marcus Grönholm, driving a third car for the French manufacturer, was fifth, despite minor brake problems which troubled all three cars on the 48.05km Escaladei stage. French cars filled the top five places as Philippe Bugalski and Sebastien Loeb (both Citroen) held third and fourth after an untroubled day. Team-mate Thomas Rådström was the only major retirement, the Swede breaking a wheel on the final test. Petter Solberg (Subaru) lost time with daylong brake problems while team-mate Tommi Mäkinen suffered gearbox troubles on the first run through Escaladei and then lost 90sec after sliding into a ditch on the repeat run. Alister McRae and François Delecour (both Mitsubishi) struggled, McRae losing a minute after a tyre came off the rim in a fast corner.
After today’s marathon leg, the second day is a little easier on the drivers. After leaving Lloret de Mar at 08.00, they face six stages covering 112km before returning to the resort at 20.00. The two groups of three stages are based around the small town of Manlleu but with just one service park covering the day’s action, competitors must twice tackle 56km of competition before fitting new tyres or carrying out repairs.
Leaderboard after Leg 1
1. G Panizzi/H Panizzi F Peugeot 206 1hr 40min 31.6sec
2. R Burns/R Reid GB Peugeot 206 1hr 40min 57.7sec
3. P Bugalski/J-P Chiaroni F Citroen Xsara 1hr 41min 16.3sec
4. S Loeb/D Elena F Citroen Xsara 1hr 41min 42.0sec
5. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 41min 52.3sec
6. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 1hr 42min 11.4sec
7. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 1hr 42min 18.2sec
8. C Sainz/M Marti E Ford Focus RS 1hr 42min 23.1sec
9. M Märtin/M Park EE Ford Focus RS 1hr 42min 28.1sec
10 H Rovanperä/R Pietilainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 42min 56.4sec