Mikko Hirvonen heads into the second day of competition on the Rally New Zealand with a comfortable 27.8secs margin, although it is Sebastien Loeb
who would have been leading had starter motor problems not lumbered him with a 30secs penalty.
With heavy rain fall prior to the event making conditions even more treacherous than usual, keeping the car on the road proved to be the primary challenge for the 14 WRC runners, although that didn't stop a familiar looking order emerging from day one.
Of the seven stages, Hirvonen and Loeb shared three wins each, with Jari-Matti Latvala
breaking their dominance when he claimed victory on the first stage of the rally.
It is Hirvonen who has the advantage though, the Finn winning the split second stage (classified as SS2 and SS3) before ending the day on top around the short Mystery Creek seventh stage. Consistency has been Hirvonen's strength too as he has not been classified outside the top two all day.
“I've had a good day and I've never had such a good rhythm on these roads before. Obviously being first on the road won't be so easy tomorrow, but I'm sure it's going to be okay. All I can do is try my best. People want to see the same sort of close battle as last year - well it looks like it's going to happen.”
While Hirvonen went about his business in a typically untroubled fashion, Loeb, on the other hand, endured a far more eventful day. Having nearly rolled on SS1 when he cut a corner too sharply, a rattled Loeb was more than ten seconds adrift after the first loop of stages, but struck back in the afternoon by pulling off three stage wins in a row.
By right he should have taken the lead from Hirvonen had it not been for an errant starter problem, one that had the Frenchman shuffling under the bonnet of his Citroen
for three minutes immediately prior to SS6. The delay cost him 30secs in penalties and leaves him staring at a fair gap to make up.
Loeb did, however, move to quell speculation that the problem may have been a cover for something rather more tactical as the road order is expected to prove significant over the two remaining days.
“I just hit the starter button and it didn't work,” he said. “We tried everything. In the end we rolled the car back, pushed it and finally got it going. It had nothing to do with tactics.”