Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park overcame several frustrating delays to hold fifth at the end of today's tricky opening leg of Rally Australia.

Their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car never missed a beat during the day's action over demanding gravel forest roads south of Perth and last month's Rally Finland winners remain firmly in contention for another strong points finish on this tenth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Overnight rain and more drizzle this morning bonded together the loose ball-bearing like gravel which covers the roads in this part of Western Australia. It offered better grip for the first cars to tackle the speed tests and significantly reduced the advantage Martin hoped to gain in the dry by running sixth on the road, behind his main championship rivals, on tracks swept clean. Instead the roads were muddy and slippery this morning, although as the skies cleared and the sun emerged, conditions dried considerably in the afternoon.

After setting third fastest time on the spectacular opening super special stage around Perth's Gloucester Park trotting track last night, Martin started well this morning to maintain his overnight position. However, the 27-year-old Estonian made an error in the 20.12km Murray South stage to drop more than 20 seconds and slip to seventh.

"We reached a section where a left-hand bend leads into a right corner and I became confused where the road went next. I'm sitting so low in the car that I couldn't see much and I turned into the bend too early. I ended up among the trees and almost in a car park. The engine stalled and I had to reverse out again so we lost quite a few seconds. I was lucky not to hit any trees," he explained.

He recovered well to set fastest time on the next test in the Castrol-branded Focus RS but lost more time during the next group of stages around Stirling Reservoir. "We made a bad tyre choice," he said. "They were too hard but that's the first wrong choice we've made all year, so we can't complain. Our pace notes are too slow. I'm driving one gear higher than we have in our notes for most bends. The problem came in the Turner Hill stage when we came to a bend that was a third gear corner, as we had in our notes, and not a fourth gear turn. We went off the road and flattened a small tree."

That was one of several overshoots and spins but Martin, who lacks experience of this event, regained his composure to set third fastest time on both repeat runs through the Murray North and Murray South tests to climb back to fifth after 10 stages and 145.20km of competition.

"I made some silly mistakes which I've not done all year. It cost us a lot of time and our chance of victory. I would not give myself many marks out of 10 today but I think a podium position is a reasonable target. Our pace notes aren't so good so it's hard to fight that much but there's still two more long days remaining so a lot can happen," he added.

Ford BP team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot lie 12th after a difficult day for the Belgians. "It's not been easy. I'm lacking confidence and braking too early and we made a bad tyre choice this morning. Our pace notes haven't been perfect but I think they should be better for tomorrow's stages which are on wider roads. It's been twisty and muddy in places and I should be able to drive more naturally tomorrow," said Duval, who was fastest over tonight's Gloucester Park super special stage.

Finland's Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie one place and just 0.6 seconds ahead of Duval in a 2002-specification Focus RS run by M-Sport. Hirvonen, competing in Australia for the first time, was third fastest through the short Gobbys test this morning and outpaced several more experienced drivers in more modern machinery throughout the day. His only problem came during the afternoon stages when he attacked a jump too quickly and the impact caused by the heavy landing created braking troubles for the following two tests.

"My day has been good, bad and good," said 23-year-old Hirvonen. "A good start this morning, a bad middle when I made a mistake over the jump, and a good end. I was surprised at my times this morning because my target for the rally is just to finish and make sure I make no mistakes. But when I put my helmet on, I forget all about that!"

Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson said: "Markko is in a solid position considering the difficult day that he's had. I think third is achievable if the final two days go better for him. It's uncharacteristic of him to make the kind of mistakes he has today. I'm disappointed with Francois' position tonight. He's had no problems and is competing here for the third time so I hope he can make up ground tomorrow."

 

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