Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb leads the tenth round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship – the Telstra Rally Australia, at the end of day one, with Petter Solberg just 3.9 seconds behind.
Marcus Gronholm retired from the competition as the Telstra Rally Australia headed back to Perth for the Superspecial stage in Gloucester Park. On the rally's eighth stage the reigning FIA World Rally Champion had slid his Peugeot 206 WRC off the road for 17 minutes, promoting Citroen's Loeb to the lead - prior to that the Finn had a 16 second advantage.
Loeb astonished onlookers with his pace through the tricky stages, particularly the 35-kilometre Stirling Long test, where the Xsara WRC driver stopped the clocks eight seconds faster than anybody. Loeb was embroiled in a battle with Solberg throughout the day. That fight for second became the scrap for the lead when Gronholm went off. With less than a second between them, the pair sensationally set precisely the same time on SS8, but Loeb eased ahead on the penultimate stage of the day and although the Subaru driver cut his lead slightly on the superspecial, the Frenchman goes into leg two tomorrow at the top of the leaderboard.
Colin McRae's Xsara WRC suffered continued brake problems throughout the day. The Citroens of Loeb and Carlos Sainz ran without any mechanical problems.
Loeb's pace has been one of the talking points of the opening leg. The Frenchman belied his lack of Rally Australia experience to post fastest time on the day's longest stage, placing himself second overall behind Gronholm after SS7. Loeb admitted he was quite surprised at his performance, especially when he moved into the lead of the event following Gronholm's problem on SS8. Loeb's only trouble was a spin on third stage of the day.
"I am pushing hard, but I was a surprised when I saw the times for SS6. Last year I struggled on this rally, I wasn't very happy with it, but now things seem to be going well and I am really happy to be leading," noted Loeb, "I am a little bit sad for Marcus, but not too much! I think I can win this rally, but there is a very long way to go yet. It's going to be a big fight."
Sainz meanwhile felt there was something wrong with the set-up of his Xsara WRC for the opening loop of stages. The team made some changes to the handling, but the Spaniard wanted to revert to the original set-up after the middle loop. Sainz's day took a turn for the worse when he rolled his Xsara against a tree on SS8, costing him approximately 15 seconds. He ended the day sixth overall.
McRae's efforts to make a good start to this event, went wrong on the road out of service first thing this morning. The Scot lost the front brakes on his Citroen and then suffered more trouble on the second loop of stages. He ended the day towards the bottom end of the top ten following an overshoot on SS7.
Sainz commented: "This morning the car was understeering its way into corners and then oversteering its way out. We made some changes, but then went back to the original set-up. When I rolled, I came out of the trees and the sun hit me, I missed the braking point, hit the bank and rolled."