Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot hold a solid points scoring position after today's demanding opening leg of the Wales Rally GB.

The Belgian pair lie seventh in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car following an action-packed day of competition in the forests of south Wales, in which treacherous early morning driving conditions sidelined several leading contenders.

Among those to make an early exit from this 14th and final round of the FIA World Rally Championship were Ford BP team-mates Markko M?rtin and Michael Park, who retired their similar Focus RS after three speed tests with an overheating engine, while lying third. Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, driving a 2002-specification Focus RS run by M-Sport, also went out this morning when they rolled after losing a wheel.

Blue skies, bright sunshine and remarkably mild temperatures brought crowds out into the forests near Swansea in their tens of thousands. The 75 competitors, who all successfully completed last night's spectacular super special stage in the heart of Cardiff, faced another six stages covering 161.79km.

Conditions early this morning for the opening two tests in Brechfa Forest were demanding in the extreme. A thin layer of mud covering the hard, stony surface ensured the roads were incredibly slippery and drivers likened it to driving on ice. But as the temperatures climbed, the roads in Rheola and Resolfen Forests, high above the Vale of Neath, quickly dried to offer easier conditions.

Duval and Prevot started cautiously but settled into sixth. However, minor problems this afternoon, allied with 22-year-old Duval's lack of experience over these stages, cost him time and a place on the leaderboard.

"It was very slippery this morning," said Duval. "As more cars passed through the stages, the roads became more slippery. We were eighth car in the order so they were really tricky by the time we started the stages. I didn't have a good feeling because of the conditions. This afternoon we had a problem in the transmission which meant the car behaved like a rear-wheel drive car. When I braked, it started to turn in because the rear wheels locked. It was difficult to control the car properly and on two or three occasions I nearly spun."

The problem was traced to an oil leak from a cap on the side of the gearbox but because that is such a difficult part to replace in a limited time, team director Malcolm Wilson elected to change the gearbox. That cured the problem but Duval then had a 'long' brake pedal for the repeat run through Rheola.

"I've not really enjoyed today but we're still in a reasonable position," Duval added. "Sometimes my pace notes were a little too fast for the roads. Maybe I was too optimistic on the first day of the recce. If I have a good feeling tomorrow, I can go quicker so I will try to move up the order."

Martin and Park completed the opening two stages in third, despite being plagued by overheating difficulties. "It was a long and difficult morning," said 27-year-old M?rtin. "We had an overheating problem and the car lost all the water from the engine. We drove 20km of the last stage and the liaison section back to the service park with no water. I was impressed with the strength of the engine - to do that kind of distance and still keep going was incredible. We had to stop four or five times on the liaison section back to service to fill up the engine with water from ditches."

The team tried to make repairs and Martin left for the next stage but after just 2km of the liaison section the engine and oil temperatures again soared. "We stopped straight away so as not to destroy the engine completely," he added. Water temperatures reached 157?C and oil temperatures peaked at 140?C. Ford BP engineers are now investigating the reason for the overheating.

Hirvonen and Lehtinen were 14th after the opening stage in Brechfa but their rally ended when they went off and retired 17km after the start of Trawscoed. "It was my fault," admitted 23-year-old Hirvonen. "I hit a rock on a straight section before a bend and the impact ripped off the left rear wheel. As a result we went into the next corner sideways because now we had no brakes either. The car went off the road and rolled slowly. There were many spectators there who righted the car and we continued to the next junction but with no wheel and no brakes, we couldn't carry on. I started the year badly with an accident in Monte Carlo and I've ended it in the same way."

Fellow countrymen Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are 13th in their 2001-specification Focus RS, also run by M-Sport. Eighteen-year-old Latvala struggled for confidence during the slippery opening stages but as conditions dried out, his confidence returned and he moved up the order during the afternoon.

Ford BP team director Malcolm Wilson said it had been a disappointing day. "I felt this was a rally where we could make a big impact with Markko. I thought victory was possible but it wasn't to be. Francois is under orders to drive steadily and finish and he has done that today," he said.

 

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