Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park battled against the effects of last weekend's heavy accident in Corsica to hold a fighting third place in their Focus RS World Rally Car after the first leg of the Rally Catalunya in Spain today.

Team-mates Francois Duval and St?phane Prevot are fifth in a similar Focus RS to complete a strong opening leg for the Ford BP team on this penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

It is the first time in the championship's history that rallies have taken place on consecutive weekends. The proximity of this event, based on predominantly flowing roads in the mountains north of Barcelona, to last weekend's Rallye de France in Corsica has tested the planning of teams to the full. But it has caused greater problems to Martin than most, as the Estonian is still suffering from the effects of his Corsican crash.

The 27-year-old has received physiotherapy all week for whiplash injures to his neck. But he has struggled to keep his head upright under the Focus RS' powerful acceleration, sharp braking and strong cornering on the eight asphalt speed tests, covering 146.36km. After trying a neck brace earlier in the week, Martin discarded that and positioned padding behind his head this morning before moving it to give extra support to the sides of his neck this afternoon. Neither provided the perfect solution.

"The first stage was OK but as the G-forces increased and the speeds rose, it became worse," explained Martin. "I'm putting so much energy into tensing my neck muscles to 'catch' my head, it's making me tired. It's hard to concentrate on my driving. It's OK on the shorter stages up to about 10km, but on tests longer than that it troubles me because my neck becomes tired and I can't keep my head in the right position."

Despite his handicap, Martin has held a top four place all day in conditions that have remained dry but cold, with temperatures as low as 2?C this morning. He posted one fastest time and, significantly, that came on the shortest test of the leg, the 5.05km Taradell. He ended the day in the midst of a three-way fight - just 5.0sec behind Carlos Sainz and 2.3sec ahead of Gilles Panizzi.

"I'm trying to do my best but it's maybe not good enough. I twice drove a 50km stage on the Rallye Sanremo with no problems but after 20km here I am exhausted. If the roads were wet it would be less of a problem but I'm constantly fighting myself. My neck could be the difference between me winning or losing this rally," he added.

Duval and Pr?vot were second quickest on the opening speed test but Duval stalled the engine of his Focus RS at the start of the next test and dropped to ninth. However, the 22-year-old Belgian, forced to cope with far from ideal conditions, recovered well to climb back to fifth. Most bends on the mountain roads are quite open, encouraging drivers to save time by straightening the driving line and cutting the inside as much as possible. This practice drags dirt and gravel onto the asphalt and Duval, seeded to start ninth, endured slippery conditions as a result of the dirt thrown up by the drivers ahead. Three of the eight stages were used twice, ensuring more level conditions on the second run.

"It's been a good day apart from when I stalled the engine," he said. "That annoyed me. I'm not pushing too hard because I have a good position and I want to finish this rally. I found it much easier on the repeated stages this afternoon. Tomorrow there are many tests that are new to everyone so my lack of experience on these roads will not make any difference."

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, driving a 2002-specification Focus RS run by M-Sport, are 16th. The Finns, competing in Spain for the first time and intent on learning the character of the roads, made a steady start to hold 13th, despite being lucky to escape rolling when their car bounced in and out of ditch on the third stage after a crest hid a fast left bend. However they lost about 2min 30sec during the afternoon stages after the fluid leaked out of the car's hydraulic system.

"I had to drive the last three stages using the manual gearchange system and with the differentials not working properly," said 22-year-old Hirvonen. "But we are still going. The pace here is faster than in Corsica and I had a few surprises on the opening stage so I slowed down. But obviously I didn't slow enough because we nearly rolled on stage three. We were lucky."

 

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