Japanese debut proves tough leg 1

Japanese debut proves tough leg 1From Ford Press [ 30/09/2005 ].
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BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Roman Kresta and Jan Tománek and team-mates Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen endured a tough debut on the Rally Japan today. With neither pairing tackling last season's inaugural FIA World Rally Championship event here, both Ford Focus RS World Rally Car crews had much to learn on today's long opening leg. Kresta was the more consistent to hold eighth, with Gardemeister producing an improved afternoon display to lie ninth after a disappointing morning.

The rally is based on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, and thousands of fans packed Obihiro last night to witness the start of this 13th round of the series. Spectacular light shows sent the 90 cars on their way with great fanfare but the night was not without its quiet moments. Before the first car left, ex-Ford co-driver Michael 'Beef' Park, who died tragically on the previous round in Britain earlier this month, was remembered when the start area flags were raised from half mast as a military band played the Japanese national anthem.

Drivers tackled two identical anti-clockwise loops of four speed tests, 80km north-east of Obihiro. The highlight was the 50.06km Kunneywa-Niueo, the longest special stage of the season. The leg ended with a floodlit super special stage on the edge of Obihiro, where two cars at a time raced side by side. The 163.26km of gravel tracks were narrow but fast, while a thick top-coating of loose stones made some stages slippery for the early starters.

Kresta completed the opening loop in 11th but as he gained in confidence this afternoon, the 29-year-old Czech increased his pace to climb the order, setting fifth fastest time on the penultimate test. "It was a hard morning," he said. "They were difficult stages and as this is my first time here I made a few changes to my pace notes. I made a couple of mistakes in the last test this morning and had to stop briefly, which cost some time.

"I'm pleased I improved this afternoon, especially as the conditions became worse, and some of my times were comparable with Rovanperä and Duval. But there was so much fog in the penultimate stage that it was better to switch off the lights to improve visibility. My start position for tomorrow is good, although I'm expecting another hard day," he added.

Gardemeister was one place and 9.8sec behind in 12th in his Castrol-branded Focus RS after the opening loop. The 30-year-old Finn was despondent but after stiffening the car's suspension in service, he had a better feeling this afternoon, setting two top five times as he climbed the order.

"My pace notes were too fast for the long stage this morning so my speed was wrong on every corner," he said. "I just couldn't trust them and I made a lot of changes. It was much better this afternoon but my tyres were too soft for the conditions. I needed hard tyres but I didn't have them in our tyre package so I chose the hardest that were available. I went off the road briefly in the fog this evening - it's an incredibly difficult rally for someone competing here for the first time."

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said the results showed the disadvantage of neither driver having competed in Japan before. "We've paid the price for that," he said. "I can see the clear improvement in their times relative to the other drivers on the second pass through the stages."

Private entrants Antony Warmbold and Michael Orr are 11th in another Focus RS. The German driver held eighth after the first loop, despite losing his confidence and rhythm during the final 20kms of the long stage. However, he dropped time on the second pass through the stages with a suspected broken front differential. "I've lost time all afternoon," he said. "On the long stage I heard a noise from the front of the car and stopped to check it. I had no idea what it was so I continued and then pulled over to let Chris Atkinson pass. I have run out of luck today."

Spaniards Dani Solà and Xavier Amigo were 11th in their privately-entered Focus RS but had to retire on the liaison section to the final stage. Solà had two punctures in Kunneywa-Niueo this morning and two more punctures in the same stage this afternoon eventually forced him to stop as both rear tyres were worn to the rims. He will restart tomorrow under SupeRally regulations.

"I had a slow puncture on the rear right 15km from the end," said Solà. "Then I punctured a front tyre as well. I changed the tyres around and we continued. Conditions in the next stage were dark and foggy. It was hard to see anyway but suddenly the light pod flew off the car and bounced off the windscreen. Then I could see nothing! I tried to reach the next stage but the mousse in the rear right tyre was vibrating and after about 40km the rubber peeled off the rim. I stopped and cut it from the differential because I knew I could do the final stage on three wheels. But further down the road the rear left tyre suddenly exploded and the rubber flew off. I had no choice but to retire."