The Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart crew of Jani Paasonen and Arto Kapanen have set a stunning pace in the opening leg of Rally New Zealand, the Finns setting their first fastest stage time to move as high as third overall before dropping to fifth, by just nine-tenths of a second, at the conclusion of eight special stages.

Team-mates Francois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup have fared less well and the French crew hold 14th overnight.

Rally New Zealand once again hosted a spectacular start ceremony in the centre of Auckland last night, the cover of darkness and bursts of fire providing a dramatic show for the thousands of spectators who cheered the eighty-one competing crews over the ramp. It was not until early this morning however that high-speed action commenced, the crews departing the city, again in darkness at 05:30 hrs, for eight special stages and 117.08 competitive kilometres based around Raglan, 160 kilometres south of Auckland.

Unlike yesterday, weather conditions have been warm and sunny - around 22 degrees - the stages dry with some damp patches and the crews have experienced some of the most spectacular scenery the Championship has to offer. The final two super special stages at Manukau also provided early evening entertainment for thousands of fans who packed the purpose-built dual lane track to witness the action close up.

Jani Paasonen and Arto Kapanen - drafted in by Mitsubishi to drive the second registered Lancer Evolution WRC2 in place of the recovering Alister McRae - have been sensationally quick in the opening leg. The duo set fastest time in stage five, the first of their World Championship career and the first for the Mitsubishi world rally car.

Top times throughout the leg saw them overhaul former World Champions Tommi Makinen and fellow Finn Marcus Gronholm, before dropping back to fifth in the final super special stage (SS8). They are however just nine-tenths of a second adrift of Makinen and only 10 seconds away from a potential podium position.

"I am very happy, particularly to have scored Mitsubishi's first fastest time with the world rally car," said Paasonen. "At the end of the first stage this morning I was very angry with myself because I thought I'd been driving too slowly, but our fifth fastest stage position helped me understand how to drive the car in these conditions. Then I knew I could really push and learned that the way to succeed here is to drive neatly in the slippy conditions."

"Our road position has maybe helped a little bit, but even if you look at the times in stage six - when it was run for the second time - they weren't so bad and I was still close to Marcus (Gronholm). It's very important for me to learn the event, and the camber changes are completely new to me, but I'm enjoying it a lot. All day the feeling has been very good, it's just a shame we lost our fourth position to Tommi (Makinen) in the final stage."

Team-mates Francois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup have yet to get into the groove of Rally New Zealand and the French pair end the day in 14th position.

"The car's perfect, but the driver isn't," said Delecour. "I just don't have any feeling with it today; it's not the car, it's me. I feel it's sliding everywhere and losing traction; I really don't understand. Stage six was better, but there's not a lot we can change, other than my head!"

Adding to the drivers' comments, Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart team director John Easton said: "We're delighted with Jani's first scratch time, for him and the car, especially on his first visit to New Zealand. We were a bit surprised, but Jani has showed his potential earlier in the year and the conditions and nature of the event clearly suit his driving style."

"We've had some problems with Francois today, but we'll look at the car tonight and see what we can change to get him back on the pace. At this time, I think it's reasonable to be targeting a podium finish for Jani."


It's been difficult to judge whether road position has been a significant factor during the opening leg of Rally New Zealand, the pace of Marcus Gronholm and Richard Burns - running first and second on the road - defying the theory that cars at the head of the field are disadvantaged by layers of loose gravel. Burns (Peugeot) seized the initiative from the outset, the Briton setting four fastest stage times throughout the day to overnight 18.3 seconds ahead of second-placed Harri Rovanpera.

Peugeot team-mate Marcus Gronholm holds third with one fastest stage time to his credit, although the Finn lost time with hydraulic and clutch problems in stages two and five respectively.

Tommi Makinen (Subaru) inched into fourth in the final stage of the leg, the Finn creeping ahead of Mitsubishi's Jani Paasonen after an incident-free day. Petter Solberg (Subaru) is absolutely hot on his heels in sixth, the duo split by an incredible one-tenth of second after nearly 120 kilometres of competition. The Norwegian did however have a scare when he spun in stage four and came to rest on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.

Markko Martin (Ford) has struggled to find a good rhythm, but changes to the anti-roll bars and differentials have instilled the confidence the Estonian needed and he lies seventh overnight. Freddy Loix and Juha Kankkunen (both Hyundai) are neck and neck in eighth and ninth respectively, with Carlos Sainz (Ford) rounding off the top ten after dropping time when he stalled the engine at the start of stage one and spun in stage four. In quite an unprecedented situation, he too is just one-tenth of a second adrift of Kankkunen.

Leading retirements today include Kenneth Eriksson (Skoda), who went off when he lost the brakes, and Colin McRae (Ford) who also went off the road when he misheard a pace note, hit a fence post and damaged the radiator.

Still to come...

The second leg, based in the north around the harbour town Ruawai - famed for its shark fishing - is the longest, both in terms of hours in the car and stage distance. The ten special stages cover 204.13 kilometres, but the 17-hour leg also incorporates the longest stage in the FIA World Rally Championship (outside the Safari Rally), the 59 kilometre Parahi, which could well prove to be the decider.