Mikko Hirvonen has finished day one of Rally Australia at the head of the pack, 7 seconds up on his Ford Abu Dhabi team-mate Jari Matti Latvala.
Rain transformed the clay-based roads in the New South Wales countryside today and several competitors said conditions were the worst they had experienced, likening the muddy clay-surfaced roads to ice.
Runaway championship leader Sebastien Loeb
was the first major casualty to be caught out. Loeb took the lead in SS3, the first test of the day, but then crashed out in the next stage, rolling his Citroen
DS3 WRC car four-times. Loeb and co-driver, Daniel Elena both escaped unharmed.
“It is a shame. It happened in the middle of the stage. I lost concentration for a second by glancing at the split time which had just appeared on Daniel's screen. I didn't interpret the note very well and I braked too late for the next corner. The car rolled four times and it was too badly damaged for us to restart,” Loeb explained.
That left Sebastien Ogier
top heading into the mid-day halt, but he also hit trouble and ran into a tree in SS6: “We hit something too hard for the car!” Ogier recounted. “We hit a tree and we destroyed our radiator and so we had to stop. The stage was really tricky and we had absolutely no grip with the hard tyre.
“Before that it was okay. We were trying to get a gap to the Fords because we knew tomorrow there would be cleaning. But we went a bit wide on a left corner and just touched the rear of the car on a small bank. Then we spun, but during the spin we hit a tree. Of course it is a difficult day for the team. But hopefully we can re-start and try and get some manufacturers' points for the team."
Citroen's misfortune though has put Ford in a strong position and Hirvonen is now well-placed to take his first win since Sweden back in February.
"Conditions were hell and I'm just happy to be here tonight," Hirvonen said. "To lead is a bonus. It's too early to think about winning because in these conditions, just finishing will be tricky. It was difficult to pick a line into corners because the grip was so unpredictable. When I touched the brake it felt as if I was driving on ice, and this was one of the most difficult days I have had in my career.
"The opening stage was incredibly fast and equally slippery. There were sections where we clocked 190kph. About 2km after the start I slid wide in a fourth gear corner and hit two metal posts. It knocked my confidence and I was too cautious afterwards. I made my own mistakes today, but others made even bigger errors," he added.