Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg had a tough start to Rallye de Espaņa, the penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship, adapting to the challenging tarmac conditions. However both drivers are well-placed to chase strong points finishes with
Wilson lying in eighth place at the end of Day One and Solberg two spots further back in tenth.
With 100 per cent of the stages remaining the same as last year's edition of the event, there were few surprises in store for the crews, but with so few asphalt events on the WRC calendar this year, the change of surface provides a real challenge for many of the competitors.
Day One was made up of two passes over a three-stage loop based to the north of Rally HQ in Salou. At 131.76kms it was the longest of the rally and heavy overnight rain meant that the morning stages presented an added trial for the competitors. Road conditions in some places were wet for all 70 starting crews, but the stages began to dry out as the day progressed.
Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin suffered early on as they lost braking just 2kms into the 20.48km SS1 La Mussara on a flat, fast section of the opening stage. But the young Brit recovered well and showed improvement over the next two stages, outpacing his teammate to stay in a points-scoring position going into the midday service.
Solberg meanwhile, with no pre-event testing under his belt, used the opening stages to adjust to the conditions in the first asphalt event since Rally Ireland at the start of the season. Finishing the morning just outside the points, the Norwegian and co-driver Cato Menkerud concentrated on keeping clean lines through the gravel-strewn corners on the twisting roads of the Tarragona region.
With no major changes made to his car after the morning stages, Wilson produced a reliable performance in the afternoon, adjusting to the drier road conditions. Gravel dragged on to the roads in the morning loop meant that some of the corners on the stages were slippery, but he adapted well to the changing situation to maintain in eighth place and stretch his lead over his team mate to 29.9 seconds.
Solberg continued the consistency shown in the morning tests, but lost time on the final stage of the day, SS6 El Montmell, as he slowed to avoid a dog that had run out onto the stage. These lost seconds meant that he slipped behind the Focus RS WRC of Munchi's star Federico Villagra and he will be aiming to move back up towards the points early on Day Two.
Saturday will see the crews head northwest of Salou to take on a further six stages including the epic 38.27km El Priorat-La Ribera d'Ebre which kicks off the day. The drivers face two passes over the longest stage of the rally which forms part of a three-stage loop.
"The first stage of the day was very difficult because the roads were damp and I had an issue with my brakes," said Matthew Wilson. "The second stage in the loop was always the best for me but I struggled both times through on the third stage because of the changing surface during the stage. The car feels good though and we're not going to do anything to it overnight. It's good to have a full day on dry tarmac behind us and I'm looking forward to building upon that tomorrow."
"I had a steady start," reported Henning Solberg. "It's my first event on dry tarmac for over a year, but checking our times, we are faster now than last year so that is very good. I've been concentrating on driving carefully and cleanly to get the line right through the corners. It's not going to come overnight but I'm pleased with the progress we've made. I don't plan on making any major changes to the car in service and tomorrow I'll just be going out to do the best I can."
"Both drivers have put in good, steady performances today and are in solid positions for tomorrow," said Team Principal Malcolm Wilson. "Today was always going to be a difficult first day when you remember that they haven't driven on dry tarmac for a year and have had little to no pre-event testing."