14 July 2000
Delecour from first to last.
Peugeot benefited from other running ahead of it on the opening day of action in New Zealand, and held first and third places by the time the rally returned to Auckland for the overnight halt.
Francois Delecour, who would have been among the first to claim that he had no chance of winning the event having not been to New Zealand for several years, found himself at the top of the leaderboard as early as stage one, as his lowly start position allowed him to run on dry, but gravel-free, roads.
The early runners, by contrast, suffered badly as the half-expected rains failed to materialise, leaving great clouds of dust in their wake as they effectively swept the loose surface off the roads.
World championship leader Richard Burns was the hardest hit, the Subaru driver running first on the road. The Englishman admitted that conditions weren't perhaps as bad as he had expected, but remained concerned lest it should rain on either of the following days. With a wet road lessening the problem for tomorrow's front-runners, Burns reckoned he would have a hard task to reclaim the minute he had lost while acting as roadsweeper on day one, and may struggle to break back into the point-scoring positions. He currently occupies eighth place.
Back at the front, Delecour acknowledged the fact that it may be his turn to suffer on day two, but was keen to repeat his belief that he was never really expected to win the event anyway. Despite this, he insisted at the end of the day, he still felt that he would have been leading if he had been running first on the road, such was his delight at the handling of his 206WRC.
Peugeot team-mate Marcus Gronholm is likely to be the French team's favoured man on the rally, given his loftier position in the world championship, and looked likely to challenge Delecour right from the word 'go' The pair ran one and two through the opening stage, and both added other successes during the day to maintain a strong presence in the top three. The Finn suffered slight suspension damage on a jump in the first stage, but bounced back to win the third, and now lies just 13secs off the pace.
Between the two Peugeots comes Petter Solberg's second string Ford Focus, the young Norwegian again having recorded fastest stage times on an unfamiliar event. He is three seconds better off the Gronholm, and appears to have no fear of running at the head of the field on day two.
''I've got good notes for this event, and I'm able to run my own set-up,'' he explained, ''I'm under no pressure and, even if Peugeot slows its drivers and I find myself running first on the road tomorrow, that will just be another valuable lesson.''
Solberg once again upstaged both his senior team-mates in the Ford camp, just as he had on the final day of the Acropolis Rally last month. Colin McRae did his bit to level the score with the Norwegian by winning both of the runs of Manukau's superspecial at the end of the day but, with just 2.1km to play with, his gains over the rest of the field were severely limited. The Scot did enough to prevent himself from being the first of the runners to fall a minute off the lead but, like Burns, is hoping that the weather stays fair for day two.
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