Ford claimed an early lead in the FIA World Rally Championship after Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen finished second on their debut for the BP-Ford team in the Monte Carlo Rally today. A career-best result for Gardemeister and eighth place for team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek, both behind the wheel of Focus RS World Rally Cars, thrust Ford into a share of top spot after the first of the 16-round series.

Twenty-nine-year-old Gardemeister delivered a highly mature performance on his competition debut in a Focus RS. After a cautious start to the three-day 1360km event, the Finn quickly gained confidence over the demanding mountain roads in the Alpes-Maritimes region, above the C?te d'Azur. He drove within his abilities throughout the 15 asphalt speed tests, covering 353.07km, and resisted immense final day pressure to come out on top of a fierce three-car battle for second.

Kresta and Tomanek, also making their debut for the BP-Ford World Rally Team, ensured a double points haul. The Czech duo recovered from a five minute penalty after a seized gearbox brought their car to a halt late last night, the result of an accident in the final special stage of the day when they hit a rock and broke the front left suspension. Revitalised today, Kresta posted top six times on each of the six tests and was fastest on the famous Col de Turini stage midway through the leg.

Remarkably mild temperatures made this year's event less fearsome than normal. The classic mix of wet and dry asphalt, ice and snow, all in the space of a few kilometres, was missing. There was only the occasional ice and snow patch to trouble competitors and the rally will go down in history as one of the driest. The benign conditions made tyre selection easier than normal. Studded tyres, usually needed to bite through the ice and snow, were never used. Gardemeister and Kresta used Michelin's dry weather rubber throughout, which worked perfectly on the relatively clean roads.

Gardemeister and Honkanen started today's final leg in third, fighting for second with Petter Solberg and Marcus Gronholm. The BP-Ford duo held off their charging rivals, who both crashed close to the Col de Turini, to ensure second. Gardemeister's exceptional performance at the wheel of the Castrol-branded Focus RS earned him the prestigious Star of the Rally award.

"I'm so, so happy," he said. "It is a great result for us and to achieve it so early in the season makes it even better. We had a good fight with Petter and Marcus but when I heard that they had problems, then I knew it would be OK. I saw Petter's car off the road and we lost some time at his accident. They had pushed it back onto the road and I had to stop briefly and stalled the engine.

"For both cars to score points on the first rally is a great start for the team. My confidence with the Focus has increased with every kilometre and this result has been achieved without making a single mistake," he added.

Kresta's increased confidence was rewarded today when he climbed from an overnight 10th back into the points.

"Today has been very good," he said. "I had a much better feeling with the car. I was so sorry for my mistake last night but at least I was able to come back and score points for Ford. It's a really positive weekend for the whole team.

"Today was a new day and a new race. Yesterday was a small mistake for me but a big mistake for the result. I've driven better today. I didn't push, I just drove smoothly and that's the best way to drive the Focus," he added.

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was overjoyed with the result.

"It was a great display from Toni. He showed superb consistency and dealt with the pressure superbly. I'm amazed how well he adapted to the Focus. I don't think I've ever seen anyone as nervous as Roman before the start. Ironically, the turning point for him was when he made his mistake last night. It removed the pressure and he was far more relaxed today. It was tremendous for him to set his first fastest time for the team on his debut, and his confidence has developed all weekend," he said.



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