Citroen team leader, Sebastien Loeb leads the Rally New Zealand following leg 1 today [Friday], the Frenchman establishing a 23.1 second advantage over Marcus Gronholm.
Loeb sneaked in front after SS4, demoting earlier leader Petter Solberg down to third, as the Norwegian was also 'passed' by Marcus Gronholm. However at that stage, and heading into the first service, they were separated by a whisker, with just 0.8 seconds between the three of them.
After that though, Loeb began to pull ahead, and three successive stage wins - in SS5, SS6 and SS7 - saw him build his 20 odd second lead, something that now puts him in a good position to match his Monte Carlo triumph back in January.
"This afternoon it was a very good tyre choice and I was pushing very hard and the car was perfect," he explained. "Now we have a good lead. The second pass of the stages were very clean and for the moment everything is going well, but it's a very difficult rally and very fast in places. You're always on the limit."
It's still early days though, and Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm will not give up the fight, just yet. The Finn though blamed his tyre choice for his lack of pace over the second loop.
"Second place is OK but we took the wrong tyre [this afternoon]," said the Finn. "I think all the Pirelli people did. We lost quite a lot, maybe too much. The problem is I don't know the Pirelli tyres. Tomorrow it all depends on the weather."
Petter Solberg meanwhile endured a less promising afternoon, and after having been right up there on the pace through the first four tests, even winning SS1, largely thanks to the overnight rain, which lessened the 'sweeper effect', the Norwegian lost ground over the second loop. Mainly due to a combination of the wrong tyre choice, sweeping the road, and the fact the stages had dried out.
As a consequence, Francois Duval nipped in front on the final test to take the last of the provisional podium positions, leaving Solberg fourth.
"I am really pleased to be third this evening on a rally that requires so much experience, especially since it is still possible to fine-tune the set-up of my Xsara," said the Belgian. "I'm not far behind Marcus but that won't change my approach. I will keep to the same pace tomorrow without worrying about my stage times."