Ford Rallye Sport’s junior partnership of Markko Märtin and Michael Park was the team’s dominant force during today’s opening leg of Italy’s Rallye Sanremo. They hold fifth place in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car and the leading challengers to the French manufacturers who are currently at the forefront of asphalt events in the FIA World Rally Championship.
Team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist are 10th after a series of difficulties on the twisty roads in the Ligurian mountains above the genteel casino resort of Sanremo. A third Focus RS of double world champions Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya retired before the start of the fourth speed test with an oil leak in the transmission system.
The hot weather of the last two days was replaced by overcast skies but the asphalt was generally dry creating no major tyre selection concerns. However, a few damp patches in shaded areas lingered all day as the sun failed to break through and patchy fog hindered the drivers in the late afternoon.
A delighted Märtin set top six times throughout the leg, the 26-year-old Estonian reproducing the form which has seen him score championship points on each of the last five rounds. He ended the day with third fastest time on the last special stage, equalling the best performance by a Pirelli-shod car.
“For the first time on this surface the Focus has done everything I wanted and without doubt it’s the best asphalt car I’ve ever driven,” he said. “It handles just the way I like it. I’m surprised to be quite so high but our engineers have been working so hard since the asphalt rallies in Corsica and Spain earlier in the season and their efforts are paying off.
“We’ve made a few minor adjustments to the differential settings, not because of any problem but just to fine tune what we already have. If we can continue at this pace tomorrow, I’ll be very happy,” said Märtin, searching for his first finish on this rally after retiring for the past four years.
McRae struggled from the start. He stalled on a hairpin during the first stage and then punctured a tyre after clipping a concrete edge in the second stage. He then knocked a tyre off the wheel rim by clipping a bank in the fourth stage and when he stalled twice on the start line of the penultimate test, it summed up a frustrating day for the 34-year-old Scot, lying second in the championship.
“Because of the problems, I’ve not really had any opportunity to settle into a rhythm,” said 34-year-old McRae. “Markko has shown what we’re capable of here and I should be matching his times at least. Hopefully we can improve tomorrow and try to climb into the points but it’s a hard task given the time gaps.”
Sainz, lying ninth, retired at the start of the fourth stage. “We were checking tyre pressures before the start when I saw smoke coming from under the bonnet. A hydraulic pipe had broken and oil was pouring out. I tried to make repairs but couldn’t and we were nine minutes late going into the start control. Because of the damage and the risk of fire due to the oil in the engine compartment, the team advised us to retire. The car felt good and we’d made good steps forward with the handling and tyre wear so I was optimistic after the first three stages,” said the 40-year-old Spaniard.
The pipe which split controls the car’s differentials and gearchange actuation system. Had Sainz started the stage he would have been unable to change gear, the differentials would not have worked and the Focus RS would have operated in rear-wheel drive only. With two stages before service, it is unlikely he would have survived.
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