The only round of the World Rally Championship held entirely on asphalt, Spain's Catalunya Rally attracted a fine entry and vast crowds when it started this morning. 115 crews set off in dry but foggy conditions for six stages in classic rallying country between the Pyrenees, already covered with fresh snow, and the Mediterranean. Warm weather has been matched by hot competition, with mere seconds separating the top crews.
Team Winfield Mitsubishi Ralliart is delighted with a strong showing from its Lancer Evolution IIIs on the first day of the 1,368-kilometre event, the final round of the World Rally Championship.
World Champion Tommi Makinen, co-driven for the first time by Juha Repo, speeded up markedly once he had fine-tuned his Lancer Evolution III's suspension for the smooth, often slippery Spanish roads and finished the day in fifth place, poised to attack the leaders.
"We found a much better suspension set-up for the fifth stage, which was the long one. We can go quicker tomorrow," predicted the Finnish driver, who has invariably been highly competitive on this event.
Like Makinen, British crew Richard Burns and Robert Reid have enjoyed a trouble-free day in their ultra-reliable Lancer Evolution III, completing it on target in eighth position. Burns has been content to learn about the mountainous asphalt roads on his first taste of such terrain at World Championship level.
"I'm happy with the speed I'm going. I'm here to learn. There's a lot to take in and the surface changes all the time here," said the 25-year-old British driver.
"We're very satisfied. Both drivers have gone very well and the cars have been faultless. I've said to both drivers that I want to get the full value from this trip and they've done a good job today. We're closer to the front than we were in Sanremo," stated Team Manager Phil Short, well aware that anything could happen during the two days of flat-out driving that remain.
The Group N World Championship for production cars is set for a nailbiting finish, but Mitsubishi is bound to win. Uruguay's Gustavo Trelles, co-driven by Argentina's Jorge Del Buono, shot straight into the lead in their Lancer Evolution III when Uwe Nittel/Tina Thorner ran into tyre trouble. However, the Ralliart Germany crew have rocketed back into contention in their Lancer and no more than four seconds divide the two after 115 kilometres of stages.
"I have always enjoyed competing in Spain and the car has gone very well today," said Trelles calmly.
"I got a bit of a shock on the first two stages this morning, but I think leg two will be good for us. We will be behind Gustavo and it is better to be the hunter than the hunted," Nittel stated.
It took all Makinen's skill to escape retirement in the morning, when exceptionally unpredictable conditions caused Spanish hero Carlos Sainz to crash on a slippery corner on only the second stage. Makinen clipped a wall when he slid onto the grass at the same point, but managed to continue after losing only a few seconds. Careful tyre choice and strong technical support from Michelin, which has produced a new dry-weather tyre for this event, has played a crucial part in keeping the Lancer Evolution III drivers in the hunt, in conditions that have frequently been more slippery than expected.
Crews face a long run south-west on Tuesday towards Tarragona for the longest leg of the rally. They will tackle seven stages, totalling 175 kilometres, on ultra-fast roads before returning to Lloret de Mar.
OVERALL POSITIONS AT THE END OF LEG 1
1.P. LIATTI/F. PONS I/I SUBARU IMPREZA 555 1.15.36 2.B. THIRY/S.PREVOT B/B FORD ESCORT COSWORTH + 0.03 3.F. LOIX/S. SMEET B/B TOYOTA CELICA GT FOUR + 0.05 4.C. McRAE/D.RINGER GB/GB SUBARU IMPREZA 555 + 0.06 5.T. MAKINEN/J. REPO FIN/FIN MITSUBISHI LANCER EVOLUTION III + 0.35 6.O. GOMEZ/M. MARTI E/E RENAULT MAXI MEGANE + 0.49 7.K. ERIKSSON/S. PARMANDER S/S SUBARU IMPREZA 555 + 0.50 8.R. BURNS/R. REID GB/GB MITSUBISHI LANCER EVOLUTION III + 1.15 9.P. BERNARDINI/D. SAVIGNONI F/F FORD ESCORT RS COSWORTH + 1.20 10.R. MADEIRA/N. DA SILVA P/P TOYOTA CELICA GT FOUR + 1.38 ........................................................ ............. ........................................... ................. 17.G. TRELLES/J. DEL BUONO ROU/RA MITSUBISHI LANCER EVOLUTION III + 6.02（1stN） 18.U. NITTEL/T. THORNER D/S MITSUBISHI LANCER EVOLUTION III + 6.06（2ndN）
*Carlos Sainz was forced to retire during ss2
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Copyright 1996 by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.