The two Ford Puma teams competing in the final round of the FIA Junior World Rally Championship [JWRC] had their hopes of a good finish to the season dashed when both cars retired within a few kilometres of each other with separate technical problems in the Welsh forests this afternoon.

Fourteen JWRC crews left the Welsh capital of Cardiff this morning for the opening day's action in clear mild conditions, a far cry from previous years when winter weather reigned.

Included in the group were the Ford Rallye Sport supported pairings of Lebanese duo Abdo Feghali and Joseph Matar and Britons Guy Wilks and Phil Pugh. Six speed tests lay in wait, including two runs at the 32.58km Rheola and the first run through Resolfen, the longest stage of the rally at 43.09km. Following the 164.34 km of competitive stages, leg one finished with a second run through the popular Cardiff super special.

Feghali, competing on gravel for only the fourth time, had a nervous start to the event even before the first stage, Thursday night's super special stage in Cardiff Bay. "We stalled on the road section on the way to the super special and couldn't get the car restarted. Thankfully we were able to get it going by pushing it, but we had a nervous wait for the start in case the Puma wouldn't fire up again. Thankfully we got through with no problems but changing the starter motor was the first thing we did at service this morning," he said.

Opting for a cautious start, Feghali took his time to get a feel for the road surface during this morning's opening stages. "The roads were incredibly slippy and we tried a few adjustments to try and give us some more traction. I had heard that the roads would cut up quite quickly, but I had no idea how bad and it was incredible to see the deep ruts waiting for us in the stages after the leading cars had been through," he said.

However the rutting roads quickly became the least of his challenges when the young man smelt oil 17km into SS4 Rheola 1. "The smell was very strong and then suddenly the car stuck in fifth gear. We tried to carry on but had to stop on an uphill section as there was no way we could get through the hairpins in a high gear. We found a screw missing from the gearbox, so I rang my brother Roger at home in Lebanon as I remembered he had a similar challenge when he was driving a Puma last season. We followed his advice by using a screw from the headlight to try to secure the gearbox and after topping it up with oil were able to continue with all gears working again. However about 2km from the end of the stage it jammed again in second gear, and with no oil left we had no option but to stop," he said.

Feghali, who has had a mixed season, said he was pleased to have some comprehensive notes from the recce to work from for next year's event. "We have learned a lot, even from the few stages we have done, and we hope that this will benefit us next year. It has been a good season as we have a good base to work from for 2004 and we are looking forward to continuing in this championship next January," he said.

Astra Racing team manager Luca Pregliasco, said while it was not the way the team had anticipated their final rally of the season would finish, it put the duo in good stead for next year.

"Both Abdo and Joseph have worked hard this week and completed an excellent recce which has given them valuable experience for next year. They have also learned much this morning about how unpredictable the conditions can be here in Wales and it is indeed disappointing that their rally ended so prematurely," he said.

For Guy Wilks, lying fifth overall in the Junior World Rally Championship, a good result at the Wales Rally GB would have been a fitting end to a good season for the Bishop-Auckland based driver. Aiming for a win on his home event, the young man made a good start.

"We might have started out a little too confidently as we slid wide on the slippy cobbles during the day's first stage, SS2 Brechfa, and went into a ditch. Luckily we were able to drive ourselves out of it, but it did give us a wake up call," he said.

"We had a tidier run through SS3 despite the fact that it felt like we were driving on glass. We always knew it would be slippy this morning but we didn't know how bad it would be and it surprised us a little," he added.

Making progress both up the leaderboard and with some good times, Wilks was the victim of an unfortunate component failure at the end of SS4. "We were about 5km from the end when the power steering went and the engine temperature shot up. We backed right off but by the time we got to the end of the stage there was steam everywhere as the engine was boiling and the temperature was going up before our very eyes. We found that the crank pulley had snapped off which controls the power steering, alternator and water pump and knew that that was the end of our rally.

"We're both very disappointed, not only because we were going so well but also for the team. We sustained considerable panel damage during our accident in the previous round, Rally Catalunya, and the boys worked around the clock all week to prepare the car for this event and this was not how we wanted to finish," he said.

Wilks said he was also disappointed that he was not able to show people what the Ford Puma is capable of on the tricky Welsh gravel roads. "One thing I have enjoyed this season is 'annoying' people with what we can get out of the Puma. It's not the most modern of the cars competing in the JWRC, but it is capable of a lot more than people expect and often surprises them. Unfortunately we didn't get the chance this weekend, but we've proved again and again this season that it's a viable contender in this class," he said.

Birkbeck Rallysport team manager Chris Birkbeck praised the duo for their excellent start to the day. "Everyone has worked hard to get the car prepared for this weekend and Guy and Phil were settling in well and it was very frustrating to see their rally cut short due to a low-cost component failure. They are renowned for their ability to get the car home no matter what, and they were able to evaluate the situation and realise that there was nothing they could do that would get them through the next stage and on to service. They made the best decision to retire there and then," he said.

 

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