Gruelling first day in Jordan for SWRT

Gruelling first day in Jordan for SWRTFrom Subaru Press [ 25/04/2008 ].
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After the first intensely punishing day of competition on the very first WRC round in the Middle East, Chris Atkinson and Stéphane Prévot finished in fifth position overall. The Subaru World Rally Team duo of Petter Solberg and Phil Mills took an early lead but were forced to retire during the afternoon.

After a week of blistering heat, ten degrees Celsius hotter than normal for this time of year, Friday’s weather was a little more subdued by comparison. Reaching a still scorching 35 degrees Celsius, the temperature brought its own sting to this gruelling event.

The surface in Jordan presented enormous challenges for the crews, being quite unlike that experienced anywhere else on the WRC calendar. The road surface is as hard as asphalt, but its grip characteristics are much more akin to a gravel rally and vary within each stage. Crews struggled for grip using the Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyres on such a hard surface, and tyre wear, exacerbated by the heat, was remarkably high.

“We have seen today that Jordan is a worthy addition to the WRC calendar” said David Richards, Subaru World Rally Team Principal. “Petter’s retirement is very disappointing, especially given his form in the opening stages, but we must now aim to salvage Manufacturers’ points in the next two days. Chris again demonstrated his maturity with a measured drive and this has been rewarded with a strong fifth place to take into tomorrow.”

Atkinson and Prévot had a consistent day on an event that neither of them had any experience of before Tuesday’s reconnaissance, just three days ago. Having made some changes during the midday service, Atkinson was 12 seconds faster on the opening stage of the afternoon before easing his pace towards the end of the day to bring his Impreza WRC2007 to the finish in fifth overall after a day of unknown, unpredictable and unforgiving conditions.

“Fifth overall is good from today – it’s in line with our target for this event, and I think we have set a realistic pace this weekend” said Chris Atkinson. “We’ve not been taking any risks as the grip today has just been so tricky it would have been easy to make a mistake and throw it off. We had a couple of moments; a spin and we slid off the road, but fortunately there was no major damage. We have made some changes to the car today which made steps in the right direction, but there is still more to come for tomorrow. The heat was really ok today for us, no problems, but it’s taking a while to get used to the surface which is so different to anything else.”

Road cleaning was a factor as the front-runners struggled with the initially loose layer of sand and gravel that covered the roads. Whilst it improved as more cars passed, it remained more slippery than many expected, and large rocks were dragged onto the route by passing cars in time for the repeat passes. The combination of badly-placed rocks and heat proved costly for the SWRT duo of Solberg and Mills.

Solberg’s experience gained from his recce here last year paid off initially as he and Mills, also a veteran of the region, recorded the joint fastest first stage time to share the early rally lead. After some testing stages including an off-road excursion on stage five to avoid a large rock over an unsighted crest, stage six brought huge disappointment. The duo suffered broken front suspension and, although they managed to finish the speed test, were forced to retire at the finish. The team will work on the Impreza WRC2007 during the evening and re-enter it tomorrow under SupeRally regulations, taking a time penalty that drops them over 16 minutes behind the leaders.

“This morning was good, but then it is so, so disappointing for me and the team to have this problem and to have retired on the first day” said Petter Solberg. “Into stage six I hit a small rock on the inside round a left hand corner, and after that the front suspension dampers just broke. Oil came on the screen, and a bit caught fire under the bonnet. We were lucky to put it out before any real damage, but I came here feeling good and looking for a good result. We had the pace notes and things were looking pretty good, but that’s just how it is. We just need to keep going and see what happens in the next two days.”

Today’s competition consisted of four stages each run twice, the longest (SS2/6) being 20 kilometres. Competitors travelled north of the Dead Sea service park for two loops of stages amid the barren and parched desert landscape, passing the famous biblical site of Mount Nebo.

Results after day one
 Sordo / Marti
 Citroen C4 WRC
 1h 16m 53.7s 2.
 Loeb / Elena
 Citroen C4 WRC
 +1.1s (diff. to 1st) 3.
 Latvala / Anttila
 Ford Focus RS WRC 07
 +8.5s 4.
 Hirvonen / Lehtinen
 Ford Focus RS WRC 07
 +13.4s 5.
 Atkinson / Prévot
 Subaru Impreza WRC2007
 +1m 08.0s 6.
 Aava / Sikk
 Citroen C4
 +1m 59.3s 7.
 Wilson / Martin
 Ford Focus RS WRC 07
 +2m 52.7s 8.
 Solberg / Menkerud
 Ford Focus RS WRC 07
 +3m 22.3s 9.
 Rautenbach / Senior
 Citroen C4
 +3m 47.9s 10.
 Villagra / Perez Companc
 Ford Focus RS WRC 07
 +3m 59.2s -
 Solberg / Mills
 Subaru Impreza WRC2007
 +16m 33.8s