31 August 2007
New Zealand - leg 1: Good start puts Marcus in P1.
BP Ford team leader Marcus Gronholm heads the pack at the end of the opening leg of the Rally New Zealand, the eleventh round in the 2007 FIA World Rally Championship.
Despite suffering from the 'flu, Gronholm blitzed his rivals on the first stage of the day, the 18.31 kilometre-run through Pirongia West 1, completing the test in 13 minutes 40.5 seconds - 7.2 seconds up on Sebastien Loeb, who was 'best of the rest' in his Citroen C4 WRC.
Normally Gronholm would have been at a disadvantage running first on the road, as time is lost sweeping way the loose gravel, however, overnight rain left the stages muddy and this worked in the Finn's favour, binding the surface together.
The Ford man thus set the marker again in SS2 - the slippery 43.88 kilometre Waitomo stage, the longest of the event and once more he was more than 7 seconds up on Seb, who opted for tyres that were too soft. As such Marcus went into the mid-day service at Mystery Creek with a 14.8 second advantage.
In the afternoon loop, Loeb came back, but while the Frenchman won both stages, Gronholm was only fractionally slower in both SS3 and SS4 - repeats of Pirongia West and Waitomo - and as a result lost only 1.3 seconds in total.
The double world champion eventually finished the day with a 13 second cushion, having conceded another 0.5 seconds to his chief championship rival in the 3.14 kilometre Mystery Creek super special, SS5, which concluded the day's action and which incidentally was won by Chris Atkinson.
Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile was third fastest in all four 'proper' tests, but like everyone else, lost considerable time to his BP Ford team-mate in the first loop. The 27-year-old felt he had went for the wrong tyres early on and as a result is now someway off the top two - 49.2 seconds behind Marcus and 36.2 seconds behind Loeb.
Atkinson was next up for Subaru, on target to finish in the top five and achieve his pre-event objective.
The Aussie was fourth quickest in both SS1 and SS2, before setting the seventh and fifth best times on the repeat runs. With Jari-Matti Latvala only 7.8 seconds behind though in his Stobart Ford and Dani Sordo another 4.3 seconds adrift in the #2 Citroen C4 WRC, it is still very close and the battle for fourth looks set to be tight. Indeed only 12.1 seconds covers fourth to sixth.
Petter Solberg finished the day in seventh position and despite setting the fourth fastest time in SS3 was again unhappy with the handling of his Subaru Impreza WRC.
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