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Argentina - day 1: Loeb assumes lead

28 March 2008

Citroen's Sebastien Loeb is firmly in control at the end of day one of the Rally Argentina, having finished proceedings one and a half minutes up on his closest challenger.

It was a very different story, however, to begin with and it was Mikko Hirvonen, who took the initial lead and dominated the opening loop, despite thick fog and lots of sticky mud following heavy overnight rain.

Indeed Mikko was in a class of his own in SS1 and stormed through the 18.70 kilometre run through La Cumbre 1 a massive 48.1 seconds up on Jari-Matti Latvala, while Seb was 'only' third.

Loeb then lost further ground in SS2, SS3 and SS4 and while he moved up into P2, following Latvala's off in Ascochinga 1, the Frenchman couldn't match Mikko, who notched up two more stages wins and went into the mid-day halt with a 50.8 second cushion.

On the repeat loop in the afternoon though, Seb soon inherited the lead when Hirvonen hit a rock in the first stage after service and was unable to continue after damaging his suspension.

The four-time world champion then paced himself through SS6 and SS7, setting two fifth fastest efforts to maintain his 50 second advantage over Chris Atkinson. In the final 'proper' test though the Frenchman was more than 40 seconds faster after the Aussie made an error and following the super special he ended the leg with a 1 minute 30.6 second lead.

"I am pleased with the way the day went but this rally is far from over,” said the Citroen man in service B. “So much can still happen and the stages promise to stay treacherous all the way through to Sunday afternoon."

Atkinson meanwhile while pleased to end the leg on course to match his best result to date, was not happy about having had two spins in La Cumbre 2, especially as it means Petter Solberg is that bit closer, just 8.3 seconds back in the sister SWRT-run Impreza.

“Today has been tough but I'm pleased with second place,” Chris reflected. “I made a mistake on stage eight and we lost quite a bit of time so the gap to Petter is much smaller now. You really kick yourself when you give away that much time, but that's what can happen in these conditions.”

Petter was also reasonably pleased, even if a broken front shock absorber slowed him in the afternoon: "We had some problems today, like everyone else, but we are in third place so it's not bad at all. I didn't feel comfortable in the conditions on the last loop of stages today and we lost a lot of time, but we will make some more changes tonight and then keep pushing hard tomorrow,” he added.

Next up and also very much in touch with the battling Subarus is Stobart Ford man Gigi Galli. The Italian slipped behind Daniel Sordo after picking up a 20 second penalty in SS4, but put in a charge to get back in front in the afternoon, posting two second quickest times and taking a stage win in SS7.

Sordo remained in front though until SS8, when power steering problems left him 30 seconds off the pace and dropped him to P5. He subsequently finished day one 19.2 seconds back, but hasn't given up on getting into the top three.

Further down the order Federico Villagra is sixth for the Munchi's team, albeit more than 2.5 minutes off Sordo, while fellow Ford runners Matthew Wilson and Jari-Matti Latvala complete the points' scorers.

Latvala would have been a lot higher up if he hadn't made an error in SS2 and rolled his Focus. That cost him 9 minutes and dropped him from second to 30th. He soon bounced back though, setting the pace in SS3, SS6 and SS9 to haul himself back into the points.

"I've been happy with my speed, I just need to get rid of my mistakes," admitted the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT driver.

Of the rest Conrad Rautenbach is ninth in his privately entered PH-Sport-run Citroen C4 WRC, while Andreas Aigner rounds out the top ten and is also on course for the Production WRC win.

The Austrian is over 1.5 minutes up on Marcos Ligato, while Sebastian Beltran completes the PWRC rostrum, followed by Fumio Nutahara and Nasser Al-Attiyah.

A number of drivers' had problems today and five 'works' cars failed to get to the end. In addition to Hirvonen, who was mentioned earlier, Henning Solberg also went out in SS5 after hitting a rock and damaging the suspension on his Focus.

Toni Gardemeister joined them on the sidelines in SS8, again after hitting a rock, while Luis Perez Companc also went out in that test after sliding off the road and getting stuck in a ditch.

The only other works casualty was Per-Gunnar Andersson. Unfortunately for the Swede and Suzuki he was the forced out en-route to SS1 with an engine sensor problem.

The action now continues on Saturday, with another nine stages and another 150 odd competitive kilometres on the bill. SS10, the 22.17 kilometre-run through Santa Monica-Amboy 1 starts at 08.05 hours local time.


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