Cold but clear conditions greeted the 47 starters on round 13 of the FIA World Rally Championship as they gathered at the service park in Vic following the 80km early morning liaison section from the rally base in Lloret de Mar.

Temperatures were as low as 3?C in the mountains north of Vic but the asphalt was dry and slick dry weather tyres were the choice of all drivers for the opening three speed tests.

Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers made a good start with Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot, fresh from their podium finish in Corsica, second fastest on the opening twisty and slippery 13.17km La Trona special stage in their Focus RS World Rally Car. Team-mates Markko Martin and Michael Park were third, just 0.1sec behind Duval, in their similar Focus RS and just 0.3sec behind leader Petter Solberg.

Duval stalled his engine at the start of the following 21.80km Alpens - Les Llosses test, a classic fast and flowing Rally Catalunya stage which drivers know well. He dropped about 15 seconds but Martin was third fastest to climb to second, just 5.4sec behind new leader Sebastien Loeb. The totally new 22.55km La Pobla de Lillet, a mixture of fast, open curves and exceptionally narrow, twisty sections with huge crests ended the opening loop and 27-year-old Martin was sixth fastest to return to the Vic service park in fourth, 20.9sec behind Loeb. Despite physiotherapy since his heavy accident in Corsica on Sunday, the Estonian is finding it difficult to hold his head upright as a result of the whiplash.

"The first stage was OK but as the G-forces got bigger and the speeds faster, it became worse," he said. "I'm putting so much energy into tensing my neck muscles, it's tiring. It's hard to concentrate on the road when my neck feels like this because I have to 'catch' it. Long stages are harder because I'm fighting against my muscles. It's impossible to tell how much time it is costing, but I am losing time."

Duval arrived in Vic in ninth, despite breaking a wheel rim on the opening stage. "We're cutting so many corners and some of the kerbs are big," said the 22-year-old Belgian. "They seem even bigger because the car is so low on asphalt settings. The oil temperature alarm was flashing through all three stages. It's only a fault with the sensor but it's hard to concentrate when it flashes every 15 seconds."

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, driving a 2002-specification Focus RS, run by M-Sport, are 13th. The Finns considered themselves lucky to escape rolling on the third stage when their car went off the road, into a ditch and bounced back out again. "The impact also flattened the exhaust," said Hirvonen.



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