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Solberg heads pack in New Zealand

16 April 2004


World champion Petter Solberg will take a five second lead into the second full day of the Propecia Rally New Zealand on Saturday.

Solberg regained the lead with fastest time in both runs at the Manukau Super Stage tonight to retake the overall advantage from Peugeot's Harri Rovanpera in the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

"I'm happy, we've had no major problems at all today," said Solberg, "The new tyres from Pirelli have been very good, perhaps they were a little too soft on the long section [SS7], but I'm very happy with the general set up. We've had a good battle with Harri today, but Leg one is just a warm up. We'll see what happens tomorrow, that's when the real rally starts."

Rovanpera had claimed the lead after the final stage of the first day in the Kaipara region today when he won the rally's longest leg, the 48.21km special stage named Possum.

The Finnish driver laboured on the first run, special stage 8, on the second night at the Manukau Super Stage though and he lost 4.4 seconds to Solberg - he was the slowest of the eight remaining World Rally Championship drivers. He improved to be second to Solberg in the second run, but will begin the second day in the Kaipara tomorrow behind the Norwegian world champion.

"I really enjoyed today. I had a very good feeling with the car and I was able to push hard," noted Rovanpera, "It's been really fun to lead the rally, and we've been on the pace from the very start. I really like long stages and we were flat-out on all of SS7, which was 48 kilometres. I decided not to risk anything on the super-specials, so I think we are in a good position for tomorrow. I'm not changing anything on the car: it's perfectly fine as it is."

Rovanpera's Peugeot team-mate and defending champion Marcus Gronholm retained third place, but is just 0.2seconds ahead of Ford's Markko Martin, the joint championship leader. Gronholm had been leading until SS6, when he rolled near the end.

"It [my roll] was a stupid mistake," said the double world champion, "My car went up onto two wheels in the same place last year, but this time we unfortunately went over. Some spectators eventually pushed us back, but we lost more than 30 seconds. It's disappointing, as we certainly have the pace to be in front. But there's still a long way to go and the car set-up feels good. We'll keep pushing!"

Martin meanwhile struggled all day, as like fellow championship front runner, Sebastien Loeb, he ran at the head of the pack, sweeping away the lose gravel, something which was especially problematic during the morning's first loop of tests.

"It was unbelievable," reflected Martin, "When we drove these stages [SS3-5] early this morning in practice, the roads were totally damp and there was no loose gravel at all. Two hours later and the sun had dried everything and there was gravel everywhere. We had the right tyres but starting second on the road was hard work. It looked promising for us this morning when everything was damp but then it was so slippery."

Loeb also lost time, and the Frenchman ended the day fifth, with Francois Duval sixth and Carlos Sainz seventh - only one minute covers the first seven drivers.

"My car is turning a bit too easily with the set-up I used," explained Loeb. "As a consequence I'm cautious in corners not to put the back of the car in the gravel on the sides of the road. I am not using the full potential of the car. I'm sure this will be solved tomorrow morning at the first service."

Mikko Hirvonen completed the top eight, the Finn pleased with his performance as he continues to try and get to grips with the Impreza WRC.

"It's been a very encouraging day," he said. "I'm happier with what I've achieved today than my performance on the first day in Mexico. Looking at the state of my tyres after the stages, my driving is less aggressive now and is more effective. I've still got some way to go before I have a rhythm that I'm totally happy with on these stages, but I'm encouraged and looking forward to tomorrow."

Daniel Carlsson meanwhile heads the 'independent runners', he is ninth overall in his Bozian prepared Peugeot 206, while Anthony Warmbold is the next best privateer, over 3 minutes behind.

In the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship [PCWRC] class Manfred Stohl leads – he is in 11th place overall and holds a slender 13.6-second buffer over Argentinean Marcos Ligato.

There were seven further defections today, bringing the list of retirements to 11 with 47 cars remaining for the start of the second leg tomorrow. The only significant retirements thus far, are the Mitsubishi's of Gilles Panizzi and Kristian Sohlberg, both going out Thursday night with electrical problems [prior to the start of SS2].

The second leg tomorrow returns to the Northland region for eight more tests in the same area as today. After leaving Auckland at 05.30, drivers face two identical loops of four stages, covering 138.84km. The action is then preceded by a second practice pass over the roads to be used later in the day. Competitors return to Auckland at 21.00 [all times local].


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