Having admitted that he would need to push on the opening leg of Rally Cyprus to try and build an advantage ahead of Saturday's opening gravel stages, Sebastien Loeb dominated the first morning of Rally Cyprus to take a lead of more than 20 seconds back to service in Limassol.
The Citroen driver, who has won both events so far this season, took victory on all three stages on Friday morning to lead team-mate Dani Sordo at the head of the times with Ford's Mikko Hirvonen more than 40 seconds back in third place.
Electing to use tyres that had been part worn during shakedown on Thursday, Loeb was more than 13 seconds quicker than Sordo during the opening 30km run through Panagia and then extended his advantage through Mylikouri and Gerakies to lead back to service.
“I am attacking from the start,” he said during the morning stages. “Driving style is very important on this surface, but I am happy so far.”
Sordo provided the perfect support during the morning as he was second quickest on all three stages while Hirvonen was unable to match the pace of the two Citroen's with the third quickest time as he struggled with the Pirelli gravel rubber on the tarmac stages.
“I don't trust these tyres on the tarmac,” he said following stage three, “but I cannot afford to let Sebastien get too far ahead. We knew Citroen would be fast, but not that fast. We will change the car a little and I can change my driving.”
Hirvonen is just 4.4secs ahead of team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala following the first three stages, while Petter Solberg moved up to fifth place on the third stage after outpacing Sebastien Ogier, who holds sixth for the Citroen Junior Team. Evgeny Novikov, Matthew Wilson, Conrad Rautenbach and Federico Villagra complete the top ten, with Henning Solberg being the only big-name retirement after his accident on the road section to SS1 forced him out.
With the Junior World Rally Championship runners benefitting from being able to use tarmac tyres for day one, both Martin Prokop and Michal Kosciuszko were able to impress on the opening morning with both drivers setting top ten stages times on the opening two stages of the event.
Indeed, Prokop was fourth quickest through SS2 at the wheel of his Citroen C2 S1600 and the pair ran seventh and eighth overall heading into SS3 although that was the stage where the Juniors struggled and both dropped out of the top ten after suffering tyre issues, with Prokop slipping down to twelfth and Kosciuszko to 18th. The third Junior in the event, Aaron Burkart lies down the order in 26th after losing time on the opening stage.
In the PWRC, Armindo Araujo produced a performance similar to that of Loeb out front to take victory on all three stages and a lead of just under 30 seconds back to service ahead of points leader Patrik Sandell in his S2000 Skoda Fabia.
“I'm satisfied for the moment,” Sandell's Red Bull Rally team boss Raimund Baumschlager said. “Araujo is driving on the edge right now, Patrik in a very clever manner. Because it's a real struggle for survival today thanks to the gravel tyres on tarmac. I'm however sure that Patrik will be able to increase his pace.”
Italian Simone Campadelli completes the top three at the mid-day interval, little more than a minute off the pace.
The event resumes at 14.34 local time, with the three morning stages repeated during the afternoon.