Solid start for BP–Ford as rain in Spain sparks tactical battle
BP–Ford World Rally Team

BP–Ford World Rally Team lies third and fourth following today’s opening leg of Rally de EspaŮa during which the ever–changing road conditions sparked a fascinating game of tactics between the major players. Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lead the BP–Ford squad in third in a Focus RS World Rally Car while team–mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are fourth in a similar vehicle. Each won one of the day’s six asphalt speed tests.

Tyre selection was the dominant factor as the conditions in the mountains near Salou, south of Barcelona, changed from wet this morning to dry by early afternoon and back to wet again this evening. Forecasting how quickly the roads would dry and estimating exactly when the rain would fall was the name of the game as teams calculated whether to opt for dry or wet weather set–up on their cars for the three groups of special stages.

Torrential rain forced organisers to cancel last night’s start ceremony for this 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship after the seafront roads in Salou became flooded. Instead drivers, officials and team personnel paid their tributes to ex–Ford driver and world champion Colin McRae during an emotional 15–minute ceremony at the rally headquarters. Today drivers tackled two laps of two stages north–east of the town before a final loop of two tests to the west, totalling 148.05km.

Grönholm made a perfect start by winning the opening stage but as temperatures rose and the wet roads began to dry, the 39–year–old Finn slipped to third. He opted for BFGoodrich’s medium soft compound tyres with additional cuts hand–carved into the rubber for the second loop in expectation of mixed conditions. However, the roads were bone dry and he dropped time to Sebastien Loeb, his arch rival for the drivers’ title.

A dry weather set–up and tyres were the perfect choice for the first stage of the final loop and Grönholm ate into Loeb’s advantage with second fastest time. However, as he sat on the start line of the final test, the rain began to fall and Loeb’s softer specification for wet weather paid dividends as the Frenchman stretched his lead to 50.6sec over Grönholm.

"It felt like I could go off on every corner so I drove cautiously," he said. "I need to think about the points to be gained from third place rather than risk losing everything by chasing Loeb in the rain on the wrong tyres. I had no feeling with the car in the wet and I was scared to push. The car was great in the dry on the previous stage but the rain came just 15 minutes too early. I hate this inconsistent weather and I hope tomorrow is dry so that I can keep the pressure on in case Seb makes a mistake.

"This morning I had the right tyres. On the middle loop I expected the roads to be mainly dry but wet in the shade, and there were a lot of trees alongside the roads. But they were totally dry and I had too many cuts in the tyres which were moving all the time. I knew after just a few hundred metres of the first stage in the group that it was the wrong choice," he added.

BP–Ford team director Malcolm Wilson admitted this evening’s tyre choice was risky. "We knew the penultimate stage was dry and there was a risk of showers on the final test. We took a gamble, knowing that if the last stage stayed dry we would make a big time gain, and if not we would not lose position. If we had opted for the same set–up as Loeb we would have gained no time," he said.

Hirvonen held fourth throughout the day. He was uncomfortable in the wet this morning but was much happier as the conditions dried out and was fastest on the penultimate stage before the rain returned. He is just 2.6sec behind his team–mate.

"At the start of the first stage, on damp roads, I had no confidence," he explained. "I was seven seconds slower than Marcus on the first 4km. It was the right tyre choice, it was just a struggle for me in those conditions. The car was happy, it’s just the driver that wasn’t! I felt more comfortable with my driving on the drier roads and I had a better feeling. It’s tricky to choose the right set–up when conditions are mixed like this. The whole package has to be exactly right to set the best times. Now I need to keep the pressure on tomorrow to try to keep Francois Duval behind me. It’s important for the team’s title challenge and for Marcus’ title hopes that we both finish ahead of him."

Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Nicky Beech were 14th in another BP–Ford Focus RS on their Spanish debut until a conservative approach in the wet this evening dropped them to 18th. "I have sampled a wide range of new experiences today. It was foggy this morning and then on the final stage the rain was so heavy that I decided not to take risks. The windscreen misted and a wiper broke so I had to peer around that to see the road," he said.

News from our Rivals
Sebastien Loeb (Citroen) won the final stage, his second stage victory, by almost 15sec to end the leg with a 11.3sec advantage over team–mate Dani Sordo. Sordo had snatched the lead from Loeb earlier in the afternoon to head a WRC event for the first time in his career. Francois Duval (Citroen) is fifth, the Belgian spinning twice this morning before launching his climb back up the order by winning stage three. Luis Perez Companc (Ford) went off on stage two and could not regain the track while Manfred Stohl (Citroen) rolled down a bank into retirement on the following stage. Jan Kopecky (Skoda) crashed out down a different embankment on the same stage while Andreas Mikkelsen (Ford) rolled at the same place as Stohl and dropped nearly 15 minutes.

Tomorrow’s Route
After leaving Salou at 08.00, drivers face two identical clockwise loops of four stages to the north and west, split by a return to the service park at PortAventura. They tackle 119.16km of competition before returning for the final overnight halt at 17.48.

Leaderboard after Leg 1
1. S Loeb/D Elena 1h 22m 16.5sec
2. D Sordo/M Marti +11.3sec
3. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen +50.6sec
4. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen +53.2sec
5. F Duval/P Pivato +1m25.8sec
6. P Solberg/P Mills +1m35.4sec
7. J–M Latvala/M Anttila +2m09.2sec
8. C Atkinson/S Prevot +2m20.2sec
9. X Pons/X Amigo +3m18.3sec
10. H Solberg/C Menkerud +5m43.3sec
11. M Wilson/M Orr +7m23.0sec

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