Carlos Sainz didn't put a foot wrong in the opening six stages of Rally Sweden, giving the Spaniard the overnight lead by over 13secs.
Drivers were treated to near-perfect winter rally conditions on the opening day's action of the International Swedish Rally, the second round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Snowfalls yesterday created high banks along the side of the stages, allowing the sport's top stars to use every inch of the road - and more besides - as they fought for seconds.
Ford's Carlos Sainz started the day cautiously but after gaining confidence in the best conditions seen on the rally for many years, he soon eased into the consistent style which is his trademark. On the day's final four stages the 38-year-old Madrid-based pilot was never outside the top three times, moving his Focus RS into the lead on the penultimate test.
''I've never known the Swedish Rally to be so nice,'' said Sainz. ''It's been enjoyable to drive in these conditions and we've had a good day. It's not been easy running second on the road because there was a little loose snow which we were clearing away for the benefit of those behind. It's good to be first but perhaps not so good to be first on the road tomorrow although so long as it doesn't snow again tonight, conditions should be OK. The car has run well and I have a good feeling with it.''
McRae and Grist started strongly and were second after the first two stages.
However, the British pair clipped a snowbank in the following test and spent an agonising 5min 30sec trying to manhandle their Focus RS out of the by now soft snow. Undaunted, they went on to set fastest time on each of the last three stages, at astonishingly high average speeds of 118kph, 116kph and 118kph respectively. They returned to the rally base in Karlstad 20th, 4min 37.8sec behind Sainz.
''We ran wide on a bend and just clipped the bank,'' said 32-year-old McRae. ''Because other cars had already hit it, the snow was quite loose and the car simply became stuck. Spectators helped push us out but it was very frustrating, especially as our times later show just what the Focus RS is capable of achieving. We've been pushing hard this afternoon and tomorrow I'll be quite happy to continue setting fastest times but I must stay out of the snowbanks,'' he added ruefully.
François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup, driving the third official Focus RS, are seventh after overcoming several minor difficulties. A misted windscreen on the first stage meant Delecour had to peer through a tiny gap to see the road ahead while a rock lying in the middle of the track punctured a tyre and damaged his car's suspension on the same test. A bad tyre choice also frustrated the French pair on the daunting 49.36km Granberget test.
''The car has been perfect. Apart from our bad tyre selection, nothing has really gone wrong but I don't feel I've driven well,'' said 38-year-old Delecour. ''There's nothing I can really identify, I just haven't been fast enough. Tomorrow I'll do better!''
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson felt confident enough to ease Sainz's fears about the conditions tomorrow. ''It's forecast to be very cold tonight so there shouldn't be any more snow and I don't think it will be a big disadvantage to be first on the road in the morning. Carlos has driven both carefully and well. He's finished second here four times so hopefully this is the year he can go one better,'' he said.