Jari-Matti Latvala produced an impressive display on the opening day of Wales Rally GB to take the lead of the final round of the World Rally Championship.
Left to fly the flag for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team at the head of the field after an accident for Mikko Hirvonen, Latvala ended the first leg of the season finale just under 13 seconds ahead of Sebastien Loeb as he seeks to secure his second win of the year.
With SS1 and SS4 cancelled, just six stages made up day one and Latvala was soon on the pace, going quickest on SS3 to arrive back in the mid-day service in third place.
Latvala was quickest again on the second run through Myherin during the afternoon to move into the lead of the event and extended his lead on the two short blasts through the Walter Arena stage.
"Victory here would mean everything to me," Latvala admitted. "Conditions were extreme with heavy rain, snow, ice, mud and water – but I'm happy! Today's stages are the most difficult of the rally but the weather made them even harder. In places I couldn't see because my wipers couldn't work fast enough. Loeb will attack tomorrow and I have to be prepared for that, especially on the opening stage where there might be more ice.
"The first stage this morning was very hard but I started to gain confidence on the next test in Myherin and built on that. Pirelli's tyres worked well on the gravel, which they are designed for, but it was hard to stop the car in the ice and snow. It's a shame the stages were shortened and cancelled because they are great roads but it was the right decision. I would have been happy on those roads with winter tyres, but not with this rubber."
For Hirvonen however, the opening day turned into one to forget as he was outside the top ten on both of the morning stages and then suffered a roll on the second run through Sweet Lamb to lose nearly four minutes and plummet down the times.
With mud blocking the radiator of his car, Hirvonen was then forced to nurse his Focus WRC to the end of the day, climbing back up to 29th place on the leaderboard in the process.
"I drove through the famous watersplash near the end of the stage and I knew it would throw the car sideways, but it threw me further than I expected,” he said. “The car hit a bank and rolled onto its roof. The spectators weren't allowed to help us push the car back onto its wheels and it took us nearly four minutes to get going again.
"Conditions were difficult but maybe I was too steady this morning. While I needed to be cautious, I didn't need to be that cautious. I could see the lines on the road from Sébastien Loeb ahead of me so I followed those and obtained more grip, but it was hard to stop on the ice with gravel tyres. It would have been too dangerous to run the cancelled stages because the grip was changing all the time – from gravel to ice to snow."