Francois Duval's return to gravel has been labelled a success following the first day of competition for the Rally New Zealand, the Belgian lifting himself up to fifth place.
Racing the Stobart VK Ford Focus this weekend in place of the injured Gigi Galli, Duval showed few ill-effects from the fact he has not driven a WRC car on gravel since Greece last year.
Although not quite able to split the factory Ford and Citroens inside the top four, Duval bridged the gap between them and the 'best of the rest' as he sits 90secs behind the leaders but over half a minute ahead of sixth place Urmo Aava.
Admitting to not being too confident at first, Duval was pleased to have found a good rhythm by the end of the day.
“Today has been good for us especially with this being my first WRC event on gravel since Greece last year. This morning the car was not feeling great so we changed the rollbar at service which resulted in much less over-steer and this helped my confidence a lot this afternoon.
“On the last two stages I was using a bit too much left-foot braking and I lost the front brakes but apart from that everything went well this afternoon.”
Duval, who will race the factory Focus in Spain and Corsica, was also praised by team principal Malcolm Wilson for how quickly he is adapting back to the gravel driving style.
“It has been a great first day by François after such a long break since his last gravel event in a World Rally car. He has picked up the pace over the course of the day and is now in a position to score good points for the Stobart team.”
Matthew Wilson, meanwhile, in the second Stobart VK machine had been running inside the points when he developed gearbox problems and was forced to retire. Although he will restart in SupeRally, his hopes of a good result are otherwise over.
“It is a shame we had to retire today after doing so well. The times were looking good and we had some really promising splits on that last stage before we retired. This is the sport sometimes though and tomorrow we will have a repaired car and a perfect road position so I'm looking forward to setting some more fast times.
“Again though, it is disappointing because we were in a position to score good points for both the team and the championship.”