Ford Rallye Sport maintained its strong showing on Rally Australia today with three Focus RS World Rally Cars holding top seven positions at the end of the second leg. Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya head the Ford squad on this penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship in fourth with junior pairing Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin excelling on the slippery gravel tracks to climb into the points in sixth.
Markko Märtin and Michael Park lie seventh in the third Focus RS after swapping times all day with Duval. The gap between them is just 0.8sec. But Colin McRae and Derek Ringer retired from sixth when a heavy landing broke their car’s radiator.
Today’s speed tests, covering 147.27km east of the rally base of Perth, were drier than yesterday and the lower road position granted to the leading cars was much in their favour. They capitalised on roads swept clear of loose gravel by earlier competitors and the improved conditions ensured major incidents were few.
Sainz started the day in third, just behind Petter Solberg (Subaru), but the 40-year-old Madrid-based driver was unable to catch the Norwegian or hold off a charging Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) in a daylong battle. As consistent as ever, Sainz was never outside the top six times and posted equal fastest time, ironically with Rovanperä, on the spectacular 6.81km Muresk test. He returned to Perth 19.7sec behind the Finn.
“I couldn’t have driven any faster than I have and I think my chances of catching Harri tomorrow are slim,” said Sainz. “We were trying so hard on the final group of stages this afternoon that we ripped off the rear bumper against a bank and took a chunk out of the front bumper but we just can’t make any inroads into Harri’s advantage.”
Duval, competing in Australia for only the second time, refused to be drawn into a battle with team-mate Märtin, tackling these stages for the first time. Both are under orders from team director Malcolm Wilson to gain experience of the unique roads here and not risk retirement by getting involved in unnecessary fights. However, the 21-year-old Belgian is on course for his best world championship result.
“I’ve been quite surprised with our times because I’ve not been pushing as hard as I could, but certainly a little faster than yesterday,” he said. “I know there is more performance available from the Focus RS but we’re determined to cross the finish line tomorrow afternoon so I’m taking no risks. We’ve modified our pace notes because they were made last year for a Group N car and driving that compared to a World Rally Car is very different.”
Märtin was also in relaxed mode but he, too, almost fell foul of the jump which claimed McRae. “It was impossible to take it without the feeling that you would damage something on landing,” said Märtin. Indeed, the Ford Rallye Sport team had to replace the cross brace behind the radiator grill and the sump guard on his Focus RS after a heavy landing on the first run through Muresk.
“The tracks were narrower and looser than yesterday,” said Märtin. “You have to know the roads here or be very confident in the pace notes to drive flat out and I haven’t taken any risks. We had a bad vibration in two tyres late this afternoon which made visibility difficult. It was so bad that I couldn’t tell what was road and what was ditch. It all looked the same.”
An impressive second leg performance by McRae and Ringer ended in disappointment at the end of the first run through Muresk. The Scots had just set fastest time in the 5.30km York Railway but their Focus RS landed heavily over the last of the famous jumps in the next stage. Although they finished the test third fastest, the landing pushed the car’s radiator back into the engine and they retired.
“We were 600 metres from the end when we landed heavily over the final jump,” said McRae. “The car came down on its nose and the force of the landing broke the radiator, causing all the water to pour out. It’s disappointing because the times were good and it was all starting to work really well with Derek. Our confidence was increasing and it would have been good to finish and build that confidence further.”
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