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.”