Following last night’s ceremonial start in the genteel Italian resort of Sanremo, this 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship began in earnest this morning when the 53 starters headed into the mountains. Eight twisty and narrow asphalt speed tests covering 147.25km lay in wait and with overcast skies above, the hot sunshine of the previous two days had vanished. However, conditions on the opening three special stages were dry, with just a few damp patches, and dry weather Pirelli rubber was the choice for all three Ford Rallye Sport-entered Focus RS World Rally Cars.
Markko Märtin and Michael Park were the top Ford performers, returning to the Imperia service park in fifth, just 10.1sec behind leader Gilles Panizzi. The 26-year-old Estonian driver improved as the morning went on after setting sixth fastest time on the 14.44km climb of the Passo Teglia. He was fifth on the next 26.46km Passo Drego, which descended the mountain before climbing the Colle Langan, and fourth on the 10.44km Ghimbegna which ascended Monte Bignone.
“Some of our pace notes were a little too fast so we’ve made changes for the second run this afternoon,” said Märtin. “Malcolm Wilson (team director) has given us orders to go flat out from the start so we’re not holding back at all. There’s only a little bit more in reserve but all is going well.” The team fitted a new power steering pump in service as a precaution after Märtin reported unexplained noises.
Team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya were ninth in their Focus RS and happy with their morning’s work. “The car feels good. We’ve made some good steps forward, mainly with the handling and tyre wear, so I’m feeling quite optimistic. “We’ll try a few different things during the day and see what effect they have,” said Sainz.
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist lie 12th after minor problems. They were unhappy with the car’s centre differential in Passo Teglia and stalled at a hairpin, and then clipped a concrete edge 2km after the start of Passo Drego, puncturing a front left tyre. “Pirelli’s anti-deflation system worked well but the handling was strange for the rest of the stage,” said McRae. “Our brakes were also a little soft towards the end of that test.”
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