Marcus Gronholm successfully played sweeper in the opening stages of Rally Australia's first leg, before deciding that, to win the event he needed to slow down, on a day when deliberate 'go-slow' tactics were the main issue.
Gronholm had set the pace in yesterday's SS1, held at Langley Park the previous evening, putting him in the unenvied position of first on the road for today's nine special stages, held on the gravel covered Perth roads.
Initially, it had appeared that the world championship leader could make the difference up on speed alone, as he set the quickest time on SS2 and then finished consistently within the top five on the subsequent stages, giving him a 5.2sec overall lead after SS8.
He would later comment, “I was actually surprised to be so fast, because from the inside of the car it really felt like we were spinning the wheels all of the time and sliding a lot. But the times have been quite good.”
The next stage (SS9), however, saw many of the top runners tumble down the order as tactics were brought into play, in an apparent attempt to avoid being first for tomorrow's second leg. It was not just a case of a few 'tenths' here and there either, as Delecour, Makinen, Gronholm and Sainz all lost over three minutes on stage nine alone.
Sainz, who would end the leg eighth overall after spending much of the day in third, was unhappy at having to adopt such tactics. “It's strange that on a world championship rally we find ourselves in the position of deliberately losing time to gain a better running position tomorrow.”
The thirty-eight year old emphasised, “The fastest drivers are being penalised. Last year on this rally the quickest drivers were able to choose their re-start positions for the following day. It worked well then but the idea is not being used this year.”
Makinen had the advantage of knowing his main rival's stage times before he had started, however a timing mix-up left him unhappy at being five seconds quicker than he had planned!
After finishing the day in third he explained what had happened, “We were trying to be further down the leaderboard, but there was a difference in the timing between us and the organisers. They gave us a time which was five seconds better than what we had on Risto's watch, and that's turned out to be the difference between third and sixth position.”