Ford's new favoured driver Francois Duval kicked off his Rally New Zealand in style by claiming the fastest time during pre-event shakedown in his Stobart VK Ford Focus.
Best known for his exploits on asphalt, Duval got the nod for New Zealand in place of Gigi Galli, who is currently recovering from the broken leg sustained on Rallye Deutschland.
The Belgian swiftly rewarded the team for their faith in him by completing the 3.08km shakedown stage in 2mins 26secs, marginally faster than works driver Jari-Matti Latvala, the driver he will replace in the factory team for the upcoming Tarmac-based events in Spain and Corsica.
Still, Duval, who won his one and only WRC rally in Australia three years ago, was not reading too much into the times, even if he was pleased to get the chance to shine again.
“It's been a long time since I've driven a Ford Focus on a gravel rally but the car feels really nice,” said Duval. “But this weekend is going to be difficult for me. The stages are completely new and so are the car and the tyres. In fact everything is new.
“Of course it feels good to be fastest today - it's not bad - but the road isn't very representative of tomorrow's stages, so we have to wait and see how we get on.”
Mikko Hirvonen and Petter Solberg shared the third fastest time, just seven tenths behind Duval, while Dani Sordo made a good start in fifth place, ahead of championship leading team-mate Sebastien Loeb, the Frenchman making a modest start to the weekend as he readies himself for the task of being first on the road.
Matthew Wilson showed fine form in seventh, ahead of sometime team-mate Henning Solberg, who will be driving the Munchi's Focus this weekend. Subaru's Chris Atkinson and Urmo Aava in his privateer Citroen C4 rounded out the top ten.
Elsewhere, the two Suzukis of Toni Gardemeister and Per-Gunnar Andersson completed shakedown with the 11th and 13th best times.
1. Francois Duval
Stobart VK Ford Focus WRC 07 2mins 26.0secs
2. Jari-Matti Latvala
BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC 07 2mins 26.4secs
3=. Mikko Hirvonen
BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC 07 2mins 26.7secs
3=. Petter Solberg
Subaru WRT Impreza WRC 2008 2mins 26.7secs
5. Daniel Sordo
Citroen Total WRT C4 WRC 2mins 27.2secs
6. Sebastien Loeb
Citroen Total WRT C4 WRC 2mins 27.3secs
7. Matthew Wilson
Stobart VK Ford Focus WRC 07 2mins 27.4secs
8. Henning Solberg
Munchi's Ford Focus WRC 07 2mins 28.0secs
9. Chris Atkinson
Subaru WRT Impreza WRC 2008 2mins 28.8secs
10. Urmo Aava
PH Sport-Citroen C4 WRC 2mins 29.0secs
11=. Federico Villagra
Munchi's Ford Focus WRC 07 2mins 29.1secs
11=. Toni Gardemeister
Suzuki WRT SX4 WRC 2mins 29.1secs
13. Per-Gunnar Andersson
Suzuki WRT SX4 WRC 2mins 30.2secs
14. Conrad Rautenbach
PH Sport-Citroen C4 WRC 2mins 33.4secs