29 Feb 08
The opening round of the Junior championship was full of interest. All nine entries arrived safely in Leon, all nine drivers coming from different countries. The first loop of the rally consisted of a group of three stages, virtually all over 2,000 metres high and the highest over 2,700 metres. All the stages were over hard packed sand roads, but with powerful World Rally Cars running ahead the surfaces were beginning to degrade.
First J-WRC car out of the start, and declared favourite, was Martin Prokop's Citroen C2 Super 1600 but things were not happy for him, going off the road on the first stage and losing around seven minutes, "I missed my braking point, went off the road and rolled." The car was in a shocking state, onlookers remarking the only intact window was the rear right side window! The inside of the car was filled with dust, "I am just happy the engine is still working well. Can't wait to have a shower...!"
Straight into the lead went Sebastien Ogier, the 24 year old French rally driver from the Haute Alpes city of Gap (the long time epicentre city of Rallye Monte Carlo), on his first ever world championship rally! "To be honest I am very surprised to be leading. I have been trying to avoid making mistakes but I have a good feeling with the car." Second overall is Swedish driver Patrik Sandell, the 2006 champion, at the wheel of a Renault Clio Super 1600 from the Serbian Interspeed team, but he was struggling.
"Five kilometres from the end of the first stage we started to have brake troubles. On the other stages they keep fading towards the end. I am having to use the gearbox for slowing down, having to watch what gear I am changing into. That new Citroen guy is going very well. Their engines are always very good. I think he has the best engine!" Third, and the first Suzuki, was the Suzuki Sport Europe car of Estonian Jaan Molder, who had been the fastest J-WRC driver on the pre-rally Shakedown. "It's great fun but the traction is awful in these conditions. There are so many hairpins on the stages!" His Suzuki teammate Polish driver Michal Kosciuszko is fourth, taking no risks and not pushing too hard in the opening stages.
German driver Aaron Burkart slid off into a ditch for a moment. "I swerved to avoid a dog. There are many straying on to the stages. I have a dog myself, so I could not bear to hit it!" In sixth place was the last of the Super 1600 drivers, Shaun Gallagher, feeling a little drained in the conditions, and a little dismayed that there was no time to repaint his red and white car into his national green colours! Then followed Sandell's teammate Serbian Milos Komljenovic in his Renault Clio R3, happy with the way things are going. "The stages are really cutting up, we have only a small car with no power but no problem, the brakes are good." Only one driver in Mexico is eligible for the Rookies prize; this is Francesco Fanari with a Citroen C2-R2 which is prepared in central Romania by Transilvania Motorsport. Ten points were assured for him so long as he qualified as a finisher! And for the moment, he was not the last driver in the category. He was still two minutes ahead of Prokop.