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The 84 starters in the car category of the inaugural Central Europe Rally got their first taste of action today with a short 63km loop to the southeast of Budapest.
The profile of the opening test, which took place in glorious spring weather, turned out to be more reminiscent of a WRC stage than a rally-raid run, so it was perhaps no surprise to see former World Champion Carlos Sainz emerge as the early leader.
Today's drive caught out some of the favourites, but all four Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart crews completed the distance without the slightest problem, and the gaps at the top of tonight's leaderboard are very close, with less than three minutes covering the top-eight.
The main question on everybody's mind during the motorway run-out from the official start in the Hungarian capital was: "What would the conditions be like?".
And, since they were running first on the road, it was Mitsubishi's Stéphane Peterhansel/Jean-Paul Cottret (France) who took the brunt of the questions from those waiting eagerly for information at the stage finish. "The ground was fairly sandy and the road quite narrow," reported the Frenchman whose quick, trouble-free drive earned him thefourth fastest time, just over a minute behind Sainz. "The main feature of the stage, however, was the seemingly never-ending succession of small jumps. You could never quite predict how difficult each jump would be. You could take a whole series of them without a problem and suddenly there'd be one that would take you by surprise. My Pajero/Montero Evolution coped with it all very well, but it was quite stressful at times."
Luc Alphand/Gilles Picard (France) were seventh fastest today and confirmed their team-mates' first impressions: "The stage was narrow in places but it was also quite fast, so there was little room for error," commented the former skiing champion. "After such a long lay-off without competing, it was important to get today's stage behind us.
That said, we can't afford to lose too much time like that every day. Compared to our main rivals, I think we essentially suffered accelerating out of the tighter turns."
Curiously, Nani Roma/Lucas Cruz (Spain) posted exactly the same time as their fellow Pajero/Montero MPR13 runners Luc Alphand and Gilles Picard. "It wasn't a bad run but I was a little surprised to learn that we had set the same time as Luc because we were a little slow off the mark to begin with," observed the Spaniard.
"We then picked up well as the stage progressed though, and I'm glad to say that the sandy surface hadn't cut up for us, even though we were running fifth on the road. It was actually quite hard packed."
Everyone at Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart was understandably eager to see how Hiroshi Masuoka (Japan) and his French co-driver Pascal Maimon (10th) would fair in the diesel-powered Pajero/Montero Evolution MPR14 which is making its competition debut this week on the Central Europe Rally. They were immediately reassured when the Japanese driver reported that his car was: "…a pleasure to drive! You can feel the torque, and that was particularly beneficial today with so much hard acceleration out of the many slower corners."
"The first rally of 2008 has begun and it has got off to a very fast and very challenging start," commented Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team Director Dominique
Serieys (France). "I think the times pretty muchreflect the terrain the drivers faced today. The diesel powered cars are far more at home on roads like this which
constantly call for hard acceleration out of slow corners. We weren't expecting the conditions to be so bumpy either, but I think all the Mitsubishi drivers came through it well. I am obviously pleased to see that Hiroshi did so well with the diesel Pajero/Montero Evolution. He didn't take any unnecessary risks but was rewarded with a good time."
After the stage, competitors set out on the 410km road section which took them across the border into Romania where they will set up camp for two days. Monday's programme features the first two of four attempts at a 76km stage near the mining town of Baia Mare.
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