Mikko Hirvonen has made the most of his slightly better road position to open out a slender lead after the first three stages of the Rally New Zealand.

Having lost the championship lead in Germany to Sebastien Loeb, the Citroen driver headed into the stages lumbered with the task of sweeping New Zealand's notoriously treacherous roads.

As such, Hirvonen snatched the lead off Ford team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala after the second stage and then went on to extend it out to 5.3secs over his Finnish counterpart to head into the afternoon's four stages with a slim advantage.

"It's a good start, and things are going quite well," he said. "It's funny but when you get the rhythm right on these roads it's feels like you're not pushing hard, but the speed is good. Still, there's a long way to go yet."

Latvala, desperate to revive his fortunes following a disappointing run of recent form, started the day off well by claiming the fastest time in the first stage, but dropped several seconds through SS2 to drop behind Hirvonen overall.

The common theme to be coming out of the stages, however, has been the slippery conditions, caused by recent bad weather, that have prompted many drivers to label this as one of the hardest Rally New Zealand's of recent years.

Among those affected was Loeb, who experienced a brief off towards the end of SS1, the Frenchman revealing that he very nearly rolled over after losing control briefly. Nonetheless, the multiple champion kept his C4 on four wheels to stay in touch with Hirvonen, albeit 9.4secs back.

"The last two stages were okay, no problem, but it's still very, very slippery," Loeb said. "It feels like we're driving slowly, and it's not easy, but actually the times are not so bad. I don't think it will be much easier on the repeat pass this afternoon.

"The surface will be very loose again, and we'll have to clean the lines left by the Group N cars, so I don't know. I think it will be difficult to win here."

Team-mate Dani Sordo ensured this weekend is likely to be a Ford versus Citroen affair by emerging in fourth best, just 11secs behind the leaders and 23secs up on the remainder of the field.

The 'remainder' is currently led by Chris Atkinson who, save for a tardy second stage, has been trading times with the leaders in the new Subaru Impreza. Petter Solberg, on the other hand, was in a very despondent mood as he trundles around the bottom end of the top ten, the former champion well down the order in tenth after suffering from unspecified problems.

"Yeah, it's not so good," the Norwegian said. "I haven't been able to do anything. I tried to do the best time but I can't do more than this."

Francois Duval enjoyed a strong morning with the Stobart Focus in sixth place, just 45secs off the ultimate pace as he embarks on his first gravel rally since 2006 in place of the injured Gigi Galli. However, he is set to embark on a battle with Urmo Aava in the privateer PH-Sport Citroen C4, the Estonian driver just eight seconds adrift of the in form Belgian after a strong time through SS3.

Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest surprise of the morning came from Suzuki's Per-Gunnar Andersson who moved up to eighth overall after producing the fifth best time in SS3. Despite complaining of a lack of rhythm, he is just four seconds off Hirvonen's stage winning effort. That was enough to place him ahead of Matthew Wilson in ninth, the Brit nonetheless comfortably inside the top ten throughout the day.

Elsewhere, Toni Gardemeister is playing catch up after a puncture on SS1 lost him over a minute, although the Finn has been setting top ten stage times since then and has climbed up to 12th place, just behind Munchi's Federico Villagra.

Villagra's team-mate, Henning Solberg, however is all but out of the rally after developing power steering problems almost straight after leaving the gate on SS1. Suffering for the next three stages, Solberg is already seven and a half minutes adrift of the leaders.

In the Production WRC class, Marco Baldacci has made the most of problems for title contenders Andreas Aigner and Juho Hanninen to take a comfortable early lead. The San Marino driver is already 12secs up on Fumio Nutahara.

Championship leader Aigner, however, suffered two punctures on the first stage to lose almost eight minutes, although Hanninen is remarkably only two seconds quicker after suffering an off early on too.