It was a disappointing start to Rally GB, the final round of the World Rally Championship, for Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson as they battled against the unpredictable Welsh weather and mechanical problems throughout Day One.
However both drivers
remain in the points and are positive that they can improve on Day Two, and finish the season on a high note at the team's home event.
The thrilling climax of the WRC season, which sees Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb
still duelling for the overall title, attracted huge crowds to the Welsh capital and the Stobart drivers got a great reaction from the fans as they took part in the exciting ceremonial start in Cardiff Bay on Thursday night.
The 62 starters then faced a long drive north from the rally's new HQ in Cardiff to mid-Wales Friday morning to take on 130.30kms of classic Welsh forest stages. But despite the rally's earlier start this year, moving from December to October, the British weather still proved to be a big factor for the crews. Heavy rain during the week had left the roads muddy and slippery while mist and fog affected visibility.
Solberg suffered an engine problem on SS1 Hafren, losing over a minute on the leaders as he struggled to get power from his Ford Focus RS WRC which developed a misfire, possibly caused by the wet conditions. The battling Norwegian and co-driver Cato Menkerud could only manage ninth place on the opening test, but even with the recurring engine problem his times improved over the next two stages as he climbed up through the field to finish the morning in a solid sixth place.
With only a short 15-minute remote service at Builth Wells after the first pass of the loop, the Stobart technicians were limited in the work that they could do on the cars and were unable to fix the issue with Solberg's engine. But he continued to show great determination during the afternoon stages, consistently posting top-six times and finishing the day just 8.8 seconds behind Citroen Junior Team star Sebastien Ogier in fifth place.
Wilson meanwhile had a confident start to his rally taking sixth place on the opening stage. But the young Briton was left puzzled by a lack of traction in the slow corners, particularly on the Sweet Lamb stage, the second of the three-stage loop, which impacted on his times as he slipped down to seventh.
Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin continued to suffer with handling problems during the afternoon, losing ground on their Stobart team-mate but will resume the chase on Saturday once the issue has been investigated and fixed by the team tonight.
Meanwhile Steve Perez, competing in his first WRC event of the season, was lying in 18th place after the first section, but he put his experience of the conditions on the stages to good use in the afternoon climbing two places, even with a puncture on SS6 Myherin, to occupy 16th place going into Day Two.
Saturday is the longest day of the rally at 138.16kms and includes two passes over Rhondda, the longest stage of the event at 35.72kms. While the stages, which take place close to Brecon, remain broadly similar to last year, they include some sections not used since 2003. More wet weather is expected which will add an extra challenge for the Focus RS WRCs and the Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyres.
"We've had an engine problem but I'm still not exactly sure what it is yet although I think it might be to do with the rain earlier," said Solberg. "It began at the start of the first stage and it comes and goes. It felt like we are running on three cylinders for at least two thirds of the first stage and it is still misfiring. I tried my best all day. I am happy with my driving and the car is working really well except for the misfire. Hopefully they'll be able to fix it tonight and tomorrow I can try and catch Ogier."
"It hasn't been a great start," Wilson reported. "The car feels very slow in the slow corners, it is not pulling well and we are struggling for traction. It's fine on the fast sections, but whenever it's slow we're not getting any traction at all so I think we've got a problem with the front diff. We lost a bucket load on Sweet Lamb so it's really disappointing. We'll have a good look tonight, probably change the gearbox and hopefully we'll sort it for tomorrow. The stages are good but the conditions out there are changing all the time with fog and rain so it's been a tough start."
"It hasn't been the best start to the rally," team principal Malcolm Wilson echoed. "But both Henning and Matthew have had a solid day in the tricky conditions even with their problems. They are both comfortably in the points and have a strong platform to build upon for tomorrow. Matthew has been suffering with a lack of traction so we are planning to change his gearbox in service tonight to try and solve that problem."