Sebastien Loeb has finished the opening leg of Rally de Espana in the lead, 30.6 seconds up on his closest rival.
Loeb started the afternoon loop with a 5.3 second cushion, however, after hanging dust gave him an edge this morning and negated the disadvantage of running first on the road, he lost time in SS4 and SS5.
Indeed the Citroen man was only fourth in SS4 and reported that it was 'cleaning a lot'. That allowed Jari-Matti Latvala to seize the advantage and the Finn turned a 5.3 second deficit into an 8 second lead. Loeb then lost more ground in SS5, despite being second quickest, with Jari-Matti doubling his advantage to 16 seconds following his second stage win on the trot.
The final test of the day though, which was run in the dark, saw the pendulum swing back in Loeb's favour and when his Ford rival spun and then suffered a front puncture losing more than 40 seconds in total, the Frenchman was promoted back into top spot.
“We're in an ideal position now,” said Loeb. “Our aim was not to lose too much time in relation to our rivals. Finishing the day twenty seconds behind Latvala would have suited me. And in the end, we've got a lead of thirty seconds, so it's perfect! I had to push very hard all day. Tomorrow, being first out on the road will no longer be a handicap and we can choose the rhythm that we want to impose on the rally.”
Latvala, who now drops down to second, was bitterly disappointed: “It was cold and still this morning and the dust hung in the air,” he recounted. “I tried to balance bravery with caution but I had a few close escapes. Conditions were bad again tonight [in SS6] and it was like driving into a wall of dust in places. I wanted to build a lead ahead of the asphalt stages over the next two days but I made a mistake.
“I was unsure where I was because the visibility was so bad, and I was driving too hard for those conditions. I entered a right corner too fast and spun. I didn't lose much time with the spin but I had to wait for a long time while the dust cleared so I could work out where the road was. A little further into the stage I hit some rocks and punctured a tyre, but it didn't cost much time,” he added.
Sebastien Ogier meanwhile saw his challenge dented in SS5, when he had to stop and change a puncture. That cost him 2 minutes and dropped him from third, 2.5 seconds behind his team-mate, to fifth, although he regained a place in SS6, to move back ahead of Dani Sordo.
Mikko Hirvonen is now third, although he hasn't had the strongest of days and lies 54.2 seconds off the lead – and 23.6 seconds off his Ford Abu Dhabi WRT team-mate, although that is not likely to be an issue, given Latvala would be forced to concede the place if the standings remain like this at the close of day three.
“Driving in the dark and with dust on the gravel roads was incredibly difficult,” said Hirvonen, who is of course currently joint top with Loeb in the drivers' championship. “The first driver into the stage had a big advantage, but there's nothing I could do about that. My position is OK and tomorrow I want to find a good rhythm and keep pushing hard. Dry conditions won't be an issue, but if it's wet then choosing the right tyres and ensuring maximum grip will be key.”
Further back, after Sordo in P5, Kris Meeke comes in sixth in the sister MINI WRT John Cooper Works WRC car.