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.
“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.