Ford Rallye Sport’s Markko Märtin and Michael Park maintained their impressive recent form to hold seventh place after today’s opening leg of the Rally New Zealand. After feeling uncomfortable with their Focus RS World Rally Car this morning, the team’s junior pairing modified its set-up and were both happier and quicker this afternoon during a strong showing on their first outing in New Zealand.
Team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya lie 10th after lacking confidence throughout the leg but Colin McRae and Nicky Grist retired their Focus RS from sixth position after going off the road and damaging the car’s radiator.
The city of Auckland is in the midst of a sporting fiesta. This 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship shares the spotlight with the qualifying rounds of yachting’s America’s Cup. And with the city’s New Zealand Warriors just two days away from their first appearance in rugby league’s NRL Grand Final in Sydney, world class sport is much to the fore here.
The North Island’s smooth, fast and flowing roads are a drivers’ delight. Most regard these speed tests as the best in the championship, despite the loose gravel which makes them slippery for early runners. Six special stages based around the coastal town of Raglan, 160km south of Auckland, followed by two runs at the Manukau super special stage on the edge of Auckland, comprised today’s 117.08km of competition.
Märtin’s first taste of rallying New Zealand style was almost his last, the 26-year-old Estonian having a fright on the first corner of the opening 32.37km Te Akau North stage. “We came to a fast sixth gear bend and when I braked there was no grip at all,” he said. “The car just slid and seemed to speed up. I was a little scared but I think my co-driver was more so! We were lucky it was a sixth gear bend and not any tighter.”
Lack of grip was Märtin’s complaint throughout the morning. He ruled out tyres as the cause but altering the balance of the car’s anti-roll bars and revising the differential mappings provided the solution. Third fastest time on the next stage confirmed the improvement. “The car felt much better. I finally had some confidence and really enjoyed the afternoon stages. I feel happy with the car’s set-up now and I’m looking forward to the long day tomorrow,” he added.
Sainz stalled the engine of his Focus RS at the start of the opening stage and then dropped about 15 seconds after spinning on the famous Whaanga Coast test. “We had a modified launch control system on the Focus but I stalled at the start during the shakedown and again here, so I changed back to the old system,” he said.
“Then we spun about 24km after the start of Whaanga Coast and the car ended up facing in the wrong direction. The road was narrow and it was difficult to spin the car back in the right direction again. The car has run fine but I wasn’t confident. It felt soft and I couldn’t be as precise in my driving as I would like but I don’t know why.” Sainz ended a frustrating day by hitting a barrier on the final stage and losing two places.
McRae headed the Ford challenge until his rally ended 1.5km before the end of Whaanga Coast. “I misheard a pace note and went into a downhill right hand bend in third gear instead of second,” explained the 34-year-old Scot. “We slid off and hit a fence post. The Focus wasn’t even a car’s length off the road but the impact damaged the radiator and when we tried to get back onto the track, the engine started to overheat. I didn’t want to damage it any further so I switched the engine off. I’m not sure we would have got back on the road anyway but, if we had, I don’t think the car would have reached the service park.”
Ford Rallye Sport team director Malcolm Wilson admitted he had hoped for a better opening day. “It was a big blow to lose Colin so early and Carlos lost confidence in his car but Markko has done another good job for the team. He is under orders to drive for a finish and having lost Colin that is even more important now,” he said.
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