Ford Rallye Sport placed four Focus RS World Rally Cars in the top eight after a treacherous opening leg of the Rally Australia today. Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya headed the team’s challenge in an excellent third place after battling against muddy conditions following a ferocious storm down the coast of Western Australia last night.
Team-mates Colin McRae and Derek Ringer lie sixth in their Focus RS on their first rally together since 1996 with the squad’s other cars of Markko Märtin and Michael Park and junior pairing Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin in seventh and eighth.
The rain, and continuing showers through the morning, put a whole new complexion on the expected pattern of this 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The speed tests south of Perth are coated with small marble-like stones which are not only slippery but punish the first cars to tackle the stages. They sweep the gravel clear to leave a cleaner and therefore faster surface for those further down the order.
However, the rain bound together the loose gravel to form a more consistent surface and eliminate the disadvantage to the fastest cars. But conditions placed an even greater emphasis on precision driving as any mistakes on the mud threatened to slide cars into the trees which line the very edge of the tracks here.
Sainz, whose long career has never brought victory in Australia, was consistently quick throughout the day. Never outside the top five times, he was second fastest on two stages and was error-free on the slimy roads. “I’m happy with the way the day has gone,” said the 40-year-old Madrid-based driver. “The damp roads helped us today and as a result we should have an excellent road position for tomorrow. We made quite a few changes to the geometry and damper settings on the car and that gave me a lot of confidence.”
Ringer admitted to a few nerves as he prepared for last night’s super special stage, his first alongside McRae for almost six years. But they had disappeared this morning as the 1995 world champions settled back into the groove. Ringer took the blame for a half spin on the second stage this morning but the duo lost more time when McRae slid into a ditch on the penultimate test. “I locked the brakes, the engine stalled and we slid off the road. We were quite lucky to get back on again,” said the Scot.
“Derek and I haven’t struck up a perfect rhythm yet but we always knew it would take time to get our confidence together. It’s been a long time since we were together and you can’t expect these things to work like clockwork straight away,” he added.
Markko Märtin and Michael Park were tackling these stages for the first time after retiring early in the rally on his previous visit here in 2000. They grew in confidence throughout the day despite the unexpected weather. “I didn’t expect rain in Australia. There’s been a lot of mud and water. It was like motocross in places!” joked Märtin.
Their major problem came on the third stage when the Focus RS landed heavily over a jump, marked only as a crest in their pace notes. The landing winded Park, strained muscles in his neck and caused him to bite into his tongue. He was unable to read his pace notes for several hundred metres before regaining his breath.
“We also stalled the engine three times today,” added Märtin. “They were just silly mistakes even though they didn’t cost us too much time. Hopefully we can eliminate those kind of errors tomorrow,” he added.
Duval has driven quickly but cautiously, the 21-year-old Belgian aware of the need to gain as much experience as possible of the unique stages here. “I’m a little surprised, but happy, to be in the top 10. We’ve had a few slippery incidents but I’m not pushing too hard because I want to finish and learn all I can about this event,” he said.
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