Citroen's Sebastien Loeb leads Rally New Zealand at the close of the opening day, having overhauled his team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen in the final test.

Loeb began by setting the third best time in SS1, before moving up into second in the next stage. He then set the pace in SS3 and SS4, to head into the mid-day Raglan remote service zone, 3.9 seconds adrift off the sister works DS3 WRC.

In the afternoon the battle continued, with Loeb gaining more time in SS5, before Hirvonen struck back in SS6 and extended his cushion to 7.6 seconds. Seb wasn't finished though, and two quickest times in SS7 and SS8 allowed him to first close and then take the lead. The Frenchman will now go into day two 4 seconds ahead.

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"I really had to fight to grab the lead from Mikko, who was particularly quick in the mud," Loeb remarked. "We made different choices in terms of the tyres, as I combined four soft and two hard tyres, whereas he had taken six soft tyres. I don't know if it was the best option, but it meant that I kept two soft tyres for the rest of the rally."

"Seb undoubtedly made the better tyre choice for the afternoon; in any event, I couldn't hold him off on SS8," Hirvonen conceded. "I'm pleased with how things went today. I had a lot of fun driving on these magnificent stages and we had good pace, which has helped us to move clear of the rest of the field. We're now at the half-way stage, but we're going have to manage the rest of the rally carefully. Managing the weather and making the right tyre choice remain the keys to success."

Behind, Jari-Matti Latvala led the Ford challenge for most of the day and was 'best of the rest' in third, before he went off the road and into a fence in the penultimate test. That cost the Finn more than four minutes and dropped him down to ninth overall.

"I spun at a slow second gear corner," Latvala explained. "I saw that some drivers had taken a big cut so I tried to do the same. The front right of the car touched a hole and the car spun through 180 degrees. I was quickly back on the throttle but the car hit a fence and some wire wrapped itself around the wheel. The car wouldn't move. I had to wait until a farmer came with some cutters to free the wire.

"I'm extremely disappointed. It feels as if nothing is working for me this year. I wasn't pushing flat out, just driving at a rhythm with which I felt comfortable. I'll start afresh tomorrow, with the aim of climbing back into the top six," he added.

Latvala's misfortune, leaves M-Sport Ford WRT driver Evgeny Novikov third, albeit over a minute off the Citroens, and only 8.3 seconds up on Petter Solberg in fourth.

"Things are going good. The morning stages were more slippery than I expected but everything is ok and I am happy with our pace," Novikov remarked. "The tyres were not so good at the end of the day but I am happy with my position overall. It has been a good day and I made the right tyre choices. We will try to keep the same speed tomorrow, but we know Petter will be fast."

Solberg opted for hard tyres this morning and with the roads wetter than expected he lost around 90 seconds. The Norwegian fought back though this afternoon and with the more suitable soft tyres fitted, set two second quickest times, and hauled himself up from seventh to fourth.

"It could have been a better morning!" Solberg conceded. "We made a decision as a team to choose hard tyres. We had to estimate how the conditions would be as the morning progressed, and we made a mistake. We had a good run this afternoon, trying to climb the leaderboard sufficiently to be close to the podium tonight.

"It will be tough to take time out of the guys ahead, although we have more of our soft compound tyre allocation remaining than they do. Hopefully it will rain tomorrow and Sunday so that we can make that count. But I will continue to push and try to climb back into the fight again."

Ott Tanak meanwhile rounds out the top five, 7.7 seconds off 'Hollywood', followed by Thierry Neuville and the MINI John Cooper Works WRC cars of Dani Sordo and Arminado Araujo in seventh and eighth.

"We had a big moment on SS4 going into a fast, sixth-gear right-hander which was quite muddy. We had a big slide, but apart from that it was a good morning," Tanak stated. "Some parts of the stages were more slippery than I had expected, but I really enjoyed the morning loop.

"We went for a big push on the last stage in the afternoon [SS8] but unfortunately the tyres wore a little more over the second pass - by the middle of SS7 they were getting quite worn. I am happy with my day. We have a good position so I will try to continue the same tomorrow."

Of the rest, after Latvala in ninth, Ken Block is tenth, ahead of Manfred Stohl - taking in his first WRC event since 2007, SWRC leader, Haydon Paddon, Richard Mason and Jari Ketomaa in positions 11 through to 14. Marcos Liagto heads the PWRC, over 1.5 minutes up on his closest class rival and 17th overall.

Rally New Zealand now continues on Saturday and the second day takes competitors north of Auckland into the Northland region for tests in the Whangarei and Kaipara districts. After restarting at 07.10, drivers tackle three stages before the respite of a 15-minute service in Whangarei. Four more tests follow before they return to Auckland for the final overnight halt at 19.48 after 143.01km of competition.

Rally New Zealand: Overall standings after Stage 8 (Top 10):

1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC 2hours 07mins 35.0secs M
2. Mikko Hirvonen Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +00mins 04.0secs M
3. Evgeny Novikov M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 31.0secs M
4. Petter Solberg Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 39.3secs M
5. Ott Tanak M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 47.0secs M
6. Thierry Neuville Qatar WRT Citroen DS3 WRC +02mins 18.0secs M
7. Dani Sordo Prodrive WRC Team MINI John Cooper Works WRC +02mins 34.3secs
8. Armindo Araujo WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC +04mins 36.9secs
9. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +04mins 56.1secs M
10. Ken Block Monster WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +06mins 25.3secs


11. Manfred Stohl Brazil WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +6mins 55.5s M
12. Hayden Paddon Skoda Fabia S2000 +7mins 45.0secs S
13. Richard Mason Subaru Impreza WRX STi +9mins 02.0secs
14. Jari Ketomaa Ford Fiesta RS WRC +9mins 03.2s
17. Marcos Ligato Subaru Impreza WRX STi +15mins 24.4secs P
20. Paulo Nobre WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC +18mins 00.5secs

SWRC standings after Stage 8 - Top 3:

1. Hayden Paddon Skoda Fabia S2000 2hours 15mins 20.0secs S
2. Alister McRae Proton Satria Neo S2000 +25mins 25.2secs S
3. Maciej Oleksowicz Ford Fiesta S2000 +28mins 03.8secs

PWRC standings after Stage 8 - Top 3:

1. Marcos Ligato Subaru Impreza WRX STi 2hours 22mins 59.4secs P
2. Ramona Karlsson Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X +01mins 40.1secs P
3. Valeriy Gorban Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +02mins 17.8secs P

Notable retirements:

DNS. Henning Solberg Ford Fiesta RS WRC Listed on the entry list, but did not make the trip out to NZ

SS3. Per-Gunnar Andersson Proton Satria Neo S2000 Went off the road S
SS4. Alister McRae Proton Satria Neo S2000 Mechanical problem S

all times unofficial