Just how slow can they go?

From Ben Mulkern [ 21/09/2001 ].
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The first leg of the Rally of New Zealand has turned out to be the tactical nightmare everybody feared, as rally crews looked more at their stopwatches than the road in completing the six major stages, and two superspecials before arriving back in Auckland for the evening. The penalty of running at the front of the field, sweeping gravel for all who follow, was the issue once again. For me, it's clear that the FIA need to do something urgently about this situation, or the world rally championship will quickly become a confusing, bad joke. As McRae has said, it's the world's best drivers seeing how slow they can go.

The reason for all the ‘games’ is the thick layer of loose gravel lying on the road surface, forcing the first cars through the stages to unwittingly sweep the slippery stones out of the way and leave a clearer driving line to the benefit of those behind.

All the tactical manoeuvres enabled Ford Martini drivers Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya to climb from eighth to third in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. Team-mates Colin McRae and Nicky Grist rose from seventh to fourth in their Focus, both further up the order than they preferred. But because they were among the first cars through the stages today, those drivers behind them in the running order were able to respond to the Ford duo’s times and engineer a better position for tomorrow.

McRae was far from happy at the situation, despite being fastest through Te Papatapu. “Our running position will make a big difference tomorrow,” he said. “Those behind us will have a huge advantage. The FIA should do something about this because the best drivers in the world are being forced to play silly games.”

Sainz was also unhappy. “Third is not a good place to be tomorrow. Eighth or even tenth would have been better but we have little choice and I fear we’ll lose a lot of time. I think we can say goodbye to any chance of victory,” said the Madrid driver.

François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup lie eighth in their Focus RS, the French pair dropping about 30 seconds after a high speed spin in Te Papatapu. “We went too far sideways and the car slid into a ditch,” said Delecour. “The engine stopped and by the time we had re-started the car and regained the road about 30 seconds had gone by.”