Thomas R?dstrom marked his return to world championship rallying with an
encouraging performance on the opening day of the Rally Argentina. The
Ford Martini World Rally Team driver ended his first day of competition
since breaking a leg in February in sixth place in a Ford Focus World Rally
Car on this seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
The 33-year-old Swede and co-driver Fred Gallagher showed no signs of
rustiness after their near-three month lay-off, posting consistent top six
times on today's eight narrow and rocky stages in the foothills of the
Andes, west of the host city of Cordoba.
Team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist fared less well, the British pair
retiring their Ford Focus on the second stage this morning.
Today's leg is regarded as one of the most punishing in the 14-round
championship, huge rocks battering the underneath of the cars and testing
the expertise of the tyre manufacturers in providing *** that can
withstand the jagged stones. For R?dstrom there was an extra difficulty -
this is his first attempt at the rally.
"I had to be very careful because on some stages there were stones the size
of a football lying in the road, dragged there by cars in front of us,"
said R?dstrom. "You come over a crest or round a corner to find a rock in
the road and because the stages are so narrow there is no room or time to
avoid it and so you must just drive over it.
"I spun the car on stage 6 and stalled the engine, losing around 20
seconds. I also had six punctures during the day but the mousse system on
Michelin's tyres worked well to keep them inflated. Two or three times I
didn't even realise we had a puncture until we reached the end of the
stage," he added.
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist, driving the other Ford Martini Focus, made a
perfect start by setting fastest time on the famous El Condor - Copina
stage, the 30-year-old Scot covering the 8.39km test 0.5 sec clear of his
closest rival and climbing to second overall. But on the next 19.23km
Giulio Cesare - Mina Clavero stage, another classic Rally Argentina test
but run downhill for the first time, it went wrong for McRae. After about
13km McRae swiped a large rock in the road just over a crest, tipping the
Ford Focus onto its side. Although McRae and Grist pushed the car back
onto its wheels, the impact broke a pin in the front suspension, sidelining
them on the spot.
"It's obviously disappointing to retire so early," said McRae. "The car
went really well on the first stage today, we set fastest time without
really pushing that hard. We were just unlucky to hit a rock but that's
typical Argentina, you have to pick your line very carefully and hope that
luck is on your side. It wasn't with us today."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson said: "Considering the bad
weather that Thomas had to put up with during the practice, when he
couldn't see more than 50m ahead of him at times, he's driven really well
today. Tomorrow's stages should suit him better and allow him to gain
confidence in the roads and push a bit harder.
"It's disappointing to lose Colin so early. We understand he was around
seven seconds quicker than his rivals on that stage before his accident so
it's clear he was attacking hard and would probably have been leading after
that test," added Wilson.
News from our Rivals
Today has been a revelation for Subaru drivers Richard Burns and Juha
Kankkunen. After a difficult year, they set the pace, each setting three
fastest stage times. Toyota duo Didier Auriol and Carlos Sainz were again
in tandem in third and fourth, their only problem coming when the Spaniard
had to stop and close his bonnet on stage 6 after it flew open just 300m
from the start. World championship leader Tommi Makinen will be
disappointed to be in fifth, the Finn spending most of the day without
fourth gear in his Mitsubishi. Team-mate Freddy Loix endured a difficult
day, swiping the rear of his car, spinning and meeting a horse on the road
all in the course of the same stage! Seat drivers Piero Liatti and Harri
Rovanpera hold seventh and eighth, Liatti bending a wheel on the first
stage and the Finn tackling the first two tests with no intercom.
After the narrow, twisty and rugged tracks in the foothills of the Andes,
the second leg takes competitors north of Cordoba for seven more stages,
the gravel roads criss-crossing vast open plains at a lower altitude than
today. Drivers leave Cordoba at 06.58, returning at 18.48 after more than
127km of stages in a route of almost 521km.
Fred Gallagher: "None of the stages tomorrow are really any more taxing
than the others, although I would probably rate stage 15, which is more
than 23km long, as the hardest, because it's very twisty and demanding."
Leaderboard after Leg 1
1. J Kankkunen/J Repo FIN Subaru Impreza 1hr 32min 34.4sec
2. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 32min 35.5sec
3. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Toyota Corolla 1hr 32min 37.9sec
4. C Sainz/L Moya E Toyota Corolla 1hr 33min 20.0sec
5. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lanc 1hr 33min 49.2sec
6. T R?dstrom/ F Gallagher S Ford Focus 1hr 34min 02.9sec
7. P Liatti/C Cassina I Seat WRC 1hr 34min 12.0sec
8. H Rovanpera/R Pietilainen FIN Seat WRC 1hr 34min 48.4sec
9. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Cari 1hr 34min 59.8sec
10 M Galanti/V Zucchini PY Toyota Corolla 1hr 39min 14.2sec