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.

Related Articles

"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.

Latvala agreed it was extremely tricky: "It was a hugely demanding day," continued the Crash.net columnist. "Perhaps I didn't respect the conditions as much as I should have done this morning, but I ensured that I did exactly that during the second loop."

Petter Solberg meanwhile lies third in his privately entered DS3 WRC car and while he is 37.3 seconds off P2, he remains positive.

"I am very happy with the performance today," stated the Norwegian. "The conditions have been very challenging, I don't think I have ever seen such muddy conditions. We had a couple of spins today, and lost time, but luckily I'm still here! The car has worked perfectly but we still need some more experience to find the correct set-up for these kinds of muddy conditions. Hopefully it will dry up for tomorrow, and that gives us a good road position. We are not far behind, so we still have a fair chance!"

Behind, Petter's brother Henning is fourth for the M-Sport Stobart Ford team, although he is over 1.5 minutes further back: "I am smiling - I have had a good day and I am hungry to finish on the podium now. For sure, we have not been without problems today but I know that everybody has had issues so it was not just me," he added.

"I have to say that it is dangerous driving on the stages in these road conditions - it's very slippery and the trees are some of the biggest I've seen so the smallest mistake can mean you could be out the rally. My side window started to fall out on Stage 6 so we lost a bit of time there but we tightened it up before the next stage so it was fine. Now I hope that the rain will clear tomorrow - it is just too difficult to push in these types of conditions."

Britain's Matthew Wilson rounds out the top-five, with Khalid Al-Qassimi in sixth position - the last of the WRC runners to make it through the day: "You know it's been a tough day when Sebastien [Loeb] retires as that very rarely happens," Wilson Jr remarked. "We're just glad to have made it through relatively unscathed, especially after so many of the other drivers had problems.

"The roads today were both slippery and the grip was constantly changing, the conditions were some of the most difficult I have ever come across in the WRC. Tomorrow's stages won't be as affected as they have been today, they're more gravel-based and more out in the open so we should find a lot more grip than we did today. From the recce, I think tomorrow will be the most enjoyable so I'm glad to have got through a difficult time today and can't wait to start on tomorrow's stages."

In addition to the two factory Citroens, Monster WRT man Ken Block, M-Sport Stobart Ford's Evgeny Novikov and Citroen privateer Peter van Merksteijn Jr also had to retire.Block went off the road on the opening stage, damaging his rear suspension, while Novikov retired his Fiesta RS WRC car from fourth this afternoon after hitting a rock and breaking a steering arm. van Merksteijn Jr had to call it a day after SS6 after he picked up two punctures and only had one replacement.

"Everything was fine this morning," Novikov said. "We had no problems with the car but the stages were slippery so we weren't trying to push. This afternoon seemed more level for all the drivers - this morning the conditions were difficult as we were running further behind the others. Then we hit a rock about one and a half km into Stage 7.

"There was so mud that we just couldn't get it back out and I think we had broken the steering arm too. The damage wasn't as bad as it had been at Shakedown so I think we will be fine to restart tomorrow."

In the Production WRC category, Hayden Paddon leads the way in his Subaru over a minute up on his closest rival - and also seventh overall. Michal Kosciuszko, Oleksandr Saliuk and Benito Guerra round out the top ten, also second, third and fourth in the PWRC.

The action now continues on Saturday and the second leg heads south to the Nambucca and Bellingen shires and is the longest of the weekend (with 146.54 competitive kilometres). After leaving Coffs Harbour at 07.00, drivers face two identical loops of four stages, split by service back in the town. The day ends with a final two passes through the short seafront test in the heart of Coffs Harbour. Competitors return to the town for the final overnight halt at 19.48 [all times local].

Rally Australia: Overall standings after Stage 10 (Top 10):

1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC 1hour 17mins 11.2secs M
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 07.0secs M
3. Petter Solberg PSWRT Citroen DS3 WRC +00mins 44.3secs M
4. Henning Solberg M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02mins 26.9secs
5. Matthew Wilson M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +03mins 03.1secs M
6. Khalid Al-Qassimi Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC +04mins 47.3secs M
7. Hayden Paddon Subaru Impreza WRX STi +05mins 19.7secs P
8. Michal Kosciuszko Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X +06mins 39.9secs P
9. Oleksandr Saliuk Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +07mins 22.4secs P
10. Benito Guerra Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +07mins 22.4secs P


11. Brendan Reeves Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +08mins 35.6secs P
12. Valeriy Gorban Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +10mins 17.1secs P

PWRC standings after Stage 10 (Top 3):

1. Hayden Paddon Subaru Impreza WRX STi 1hour 22mins 30.9secs P
2. Michal Kosciuszko Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X +01mins 20.2secs P
3. Oleksandr Saliuk Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +02mins 02.7secs P

Notable retirements:

SS3. Ken Block Monster WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Went off the road M
SS4. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC Rolled M
SS6. Sebastien Ogier Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC Hit a tree M
SS6. Daniel Oliviera Brazil WRT MINI John Cooper Works Radiator M
SS7. Evgeny Novikov M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC Hit a rock M
SS7. Peter van Merksteijn Van Merksteijn Citroen DS3 WRC Punctures M

all times unofficial