Irish Rain Dampens Stobart Spirits
Leader Urmo Aava saw his bid for victory slip from his grasp on the sixth stage of Rally Ireland.

Having dominated the early stages of the event the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver’s Ford Focus RS left the road 6.6km into the 25.19km Aughnasheelan test, and was left stuck firmly in a ditch. With the help of spectators he eventually managed to free the car, but the Stobart team retired the Estonian’s car as a precaution to ensure it did not suffer any additional damage. It is hoped Aava will be able to resume under SuperRally rules tomorrow (Saturday) upon inspection of the car by Stobart team technicians.

Thirty-six competitors were flagged away at Rally Ireland’s ceremonial start the previous evening by FIA president Max Mosley in front of the crowds at Enniskillen Castle. However, by the time the cars tackled the first stage the following morning the Irish roads were thoroughly soaked and covered in standing water. This tested the abilities of the registered crews to the maximum and made tyre choice absolutely critical.

All three Stobart crews started the opening round of the 2009 FIA World Rally Championship using the Pirelli Sottozero winter tyre, which gave them an edge over many of their rivals during the opening stages. The Estonian pairing of Aava and Kuldar Sikk set a scorching pace as they adapted quickest to the atrocious conditions, and by the end of the first loop were heading the overall classification. Despite being overhauled by reigning world champion Sebastien Loeb in the subsequent tests, the pair were well on course for an outstanding debut result before their unfortunate exit on SS6.

Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud also performed well on the drenched Irish asphalt. The Norwegian duo outpaced Sebastien Loeb on the first stage, and went on to overall fifth place at Service A. They continued to impress as the day went on, finishing the second loop of the Sligo-based event in fourth overall, and in contention for an excellent result on their least-favoured surface.

Matthew Wilson/Scott Martin overcame an early scare on the first stage to move steadily up the order as the day progressed. They moved into the top ten after upping the pace over SS2 and SS3, then as they found more confidence in the Pirelli Sottozero winter tyre recorded the sixth-fastest time on SS6, moving the pair up to eighth overall.

The stormy weather, which had eased slightly in the afternoon, returned with a vengeance after the second loop and the rally organisers were forced to cancel the final two stages, SS7 Murley and SS8 Fardross, for safety reasons. A combination of heavy rain, high winds and flooding left them with no alternative but to cancel the two night stages, bringing the first action-packed day of Rally Ireland to a premature halt.

With two of the three Ford Focus RS WRCs in the top eight of the overall standings the Stobart team will look to ensure both cars survive the second day unscathed and achieve strong points finishes.

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Urmo Aava said:
“It’s been a day of highs and lows. This morning started well and it was great to be leading for my new Stobart team at the first service. Obviously I was disappointed with my time loss this afternoon. We slid on some mud on a slow left hand corner and got beached on a ditch at the side of the road. We were pretty well stuck and it took quite a bit of time for the spectators to get us back onto the road. I have been very encouraged by my times today though and look forward to going back out tomorrow, doing more kilometres in the car and getting my confidence back.”

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
“We are enjoying it and setting our own pace to try and finish in the top five, which is our main aim for the weekend. I’m much higher up the leaderboard than I thought I would be at this stage. It’s better that there is more rain because the slippery conditions work in our favour and I find it easier to drive on tarmac like that. We are not going to worry about the fight for podium positions but just concentrate on finishing and looking ahead to Norway.”

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
“It was good to get into the points before the end of the day. We’ve grown in confidence as the day went on and I felt really able to push in places where the standing water wasn’t so bad. I started to get a good feel for the Pirelli Sottozero tyre and even though there was some massive rivers running across the road you could still attack and be confident of the grip. We didn’t have any major dramas after the first stage and we know what we need to do to move up tomorrow.”

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Team Principal Malcolm Wilson said:
“It’s been the best-ever start to the season for the Stobart team and it’s fantastic to have seen them leading in such treacherous conditions. It was unfortunate for Urmo that he couldn’t get back on the road quickly, but Henning has driven really well and we still have two cars in the top eight. With the last two stages being cancelled due to the conditions it just shows how difficult today has been for the drivers and I think they have performed extremely well.”

Leaderboard after day 1
1. S Loeb/D Elena (F) Citroën C4 1h50m35.2s
2. D Sordo/M Marti (E) Citroën C4 +44.4s
3. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen (FIN) Ford Focus RS +1m04.8s
4. H Solberg/C Menkerud (N) Ford Focus RS +3m09.4s
5. C Rautenbach/D Barritt (ZIM) Citroën C4 +4m18.3s
6. S Ogier/J Ingrassia (F) Citroën C4 +4m23.2s
7. C Atkinson/S Prevot (AUS) Citroën C4 +4m51.2s
8. M Wilson/S Martin (GB) Ford Focus RS +4m56s
9. G MacHale/B Murphy (IRL) Ford Focus RS +5m05.1s
10. E Boland/F Regan (IRL) Subaru Impreza +5m54.5s

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