FINLAND -- The Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart crews of Jani Paasonen/Arto Kapanen and Alister McRae/David Senior finished the opening leg of Rally Finland in 13th and 17th positions respectively. In the debut competitive outing of the Lancer Evolution WRC2, the crews have closed the gap to the opposition, but the team suffered disappointment when François Delecour/Daniel Grataloup were forced into retirement in the penultimate stage of the day.
After last night's super special stage, the 77 crews contesting Rally Finland headed into the forests this morning for the first full day of competition. The route, which covered a total of nine stages over 128.61 competitive kilometres, took the contenders to the north of Jyvaskyla, where clear blue skies and warm temperatures greeted them, drawing the fanatical Finns out in their thousands. Few were disappointed by the world-class action, although many were doubtless surprised by the pace of Richard Burns in the face of such stiff local opposition.
Jani Paasonen and Arto Kapanen have led the assault for Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart throughout the day, the Finns capitalising on their local knowledge to hold an early ninth position ahead of former World Champions Carlos Sainz and Tommi Makinen. An over-cautious approach to the middle group of two stages lost them time however, and they ultimately returned to Jyvaskyla in 13th position.
"We are still learning so much, but the feeling with the car is very good and I am happy with our day," said Jani. "Tomorrow will be better I think. The roads are wider and faster and it will be good. Third position on the road for us is not ideal, but I'm not thinking about that. Today has been maximum attack minus, tomorrow it must be half-minus!"
Team-mates Alister McRae and David Senior have enjoyed a relatively trouble-free day and are pleased with the performance of the new evolution of Mitsubishi's World Rally Car, although a degree of oversteer this morning necessitated adjustments to the transmission settings. The Scot also suffered with a damper fluid leak in stage six and a broken front shock absorber in stage nine. "The car is a definite improvement, it seems about half a second a kilometre quicker," said Alister. "Everyone keeps making steps forward though, so we must improve more and more all the time. Today has been quite fast, challenging and technical and apart from our mistake earlier when we landed heavily going too fast over a jump, and the front damper breaking, the car has been great. Tomorrow we'll continue to push hard and try and improve our times. Seventeenth on the road, where we are, should be good for us though, especially if it stays dry."
François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup suffered a disappointing retirement in stage nine. "We don't know exactly what happened, but there were a couple of problems before that," said François. "We lost the power steering when a pipe joint came loose and the fluid leaked out, but we fixed this quickly. Then we lost all the power steering oil and then when we landed after a small jump in stage nine, the suspension on the front left corner collapsed. It is obviously disappointing, but for sure the car is much better; I like it and I'm enjoying the driving."
The pace in the opening leg of Rally Finland has been fast and furious, the dominant Peugeots taking the top three slots on the leaderboard. Surprisingly, Britain's Richard Burns has snatched the initiative from his two Finnish team-mates, a blisteringly quick speed seeing him claim no fewer than five stage wins throughout the day. Behind the trio of Peugeots, Colin McRae (Ford) held fourth until losing out to Petter Solberg (Subaru) in the penultimate stage, the Scot admitting there was generally little he could do to match the pace of the Peugeots. Solberg heads Subaru's assault while a seemingly lacklustre day for Tommi Makinen sees him eighth overnight. Sixth position is held by former Rally Finland winner Carlos Sainz (Ford), who started the day unhappily with his suspension set-up. The only leading retirements of the day, aside from Delecour, were those of Kenneth Eriksson (Skoda) and François Duval (Ford) with fuel problems and broken suspension respectively.
Still to come…
The second leg of Rally Finland takes the remaining contenders to the southwest of Jyvaskyla for six special stages and 176.65 competitive kilometres. The leg, the longest of the three, also includes two runs at one of the most famous and spectacular stages in the rally, the daunting 34.13 kilometre Ouninpohja stage.