Sebastien Loeb has taken the early initiative on the Rally RACC Catalunya-Costa Daurada following the opening loop of three stages this morning [Friday].

Loeb was in fine form from the off as he looks to try and extend his eight-point lead over BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen and clinch his fifth drivers' title.

The Frenchman was 1.5 seconds up on his Citroen team-mate, Dani Sordo in SS1, the 20.48 kilometre-run through La Mussara, but it was in the next stage that he really showed his class and extended his advantage to 7.4 seconds. Seb then just edged out Sordo in SS3 to return to the mid-day halt in PortAventura with a 7.5 second lead.

"The conditions were cold and dry, so we chose the hard compound tyre, although it was important to get the rubber up to temperature in order to profit from good grip. I decided to push hard from the outset in order to profit from the stages while they were still clean before this afternoon's repeat run," said Loeb.

"Everything went like a dream. My set-up is perfect, my C4 is very competitive and we didn't make any mistakes. There's not much in it between Dani and ourselves, but we've succeeded in pulling out a handy little gap over our rivals. I prefer to see how the conditions have evolved before deciding what sort of pace to adopt this afternoon."

Sordo meanwhile was the only one anywhere near Loeb's pace and with three second quickest times, lies 16.1 seconds up on Francois Duval, who heads the chasing pack behind the dominant 'works' Citroen C4 WRC's.

"I had a bit of troubling settling into the ideal rhythm and I had quite a bit of understeer running on the hard compound tyre," said Sordo. "I tried to adapt the way I drove to make full use of my C4's potential and I am pleased with the result and our position so far.

"The two drivers running ahead of us on the road hardly cut any corners and the stage was still clean, but I'm not sure it will still be that way when we return this afternoon. Our chasers aren't that far behind, so we will need to keep pushing on the next three tests."

Duval claimed P3 in SS1 and although he slipped behind Mikko Hirvonen in SS2, he pulled back in front in SS3. The two BP Ford Abu Dhabi men are now split by just 2.2 seconds, but alarmingly for Mikko, he is already 25 seconds off Loeb and that doesn't bode well.

"The gap to the leaders is quite large already and I'm going to make the car set-up softer in service, closer to what we had in Germany," said Hirvonen. "I don't feel confident with the car and as a result I'm not pushing as much as I know I can. I don't have enough grip and the car is sliding in every bend.

"I need to change the car because I know I can go faster and I can't alter the tyres. After the test last week I felt excited because everything felt good, and I didn't expect this."

"I'm happy with the morning, although I struggled for grip in places," Duval added. "These stages were new to me so I made many changes to my pace notes and I hope I can increase my pace this afternoon.

"There was a lot of gravel on the road because cars ahead of me were cutting the corners, but at least this afternoon it will be the same for everyone when we repeat the stages. The surface in the middle of the last stage was more abrasive so the grip was better and it was easier to drive."

Subaru's Petter Solberg completes the top five, albeit another 30 seconds or so further back. While virtually all of the front runners went for Pirelli's harder compound tyre, 'Hollywood' - and his team-mates, Chris Atkinson and Brice Tirabassi - all opted for the softer one. He now intends to try the hard tyre on the repeat loop this afternoon.

Urmo Aava is next up and just 6 seconds off Petter, despite tapping a barrier in SS1 and breaking a front tyre rim in SS3. The Estonian was sixth quickest in all three tests in his PH Sport-run C4 WRC and is right in the thick of the battle for P5.

Andreas Mikkelsen and Jari-Matti Latvala are also in the fight for fifth, both a few seconds further back in seventh and eighth, while Chris Atkinson and Suzuki's Toni Gardemeister round out the top ten.

"I made a slow start this morning as my confidence is really low at the minute after the recent accidents I've had," Latvala admitted. "The car is feeling really good on the older, more abrasive tarmac but we need to do some work to get a better feeling on the smoother sections as there is some understeer in the slower corners. But we've got service now to make a few changes for this afternoon."

Of the rest Matthew Wilson lies on the fringes of the top ten followed by Conrad Rautenbach, Tirabassi and Munchi's Ford WRT duo Federico Villagra and Henning Solberg.

"We had a very good middle stage in that loop and the plan for this afternoon is to build on the confidence from that," said Wilson Jr. "The only problem this morning was when we lost the brakes at the start of the first stage but they came back and we started to use them some more. We were finding some understeer but I think that is the same problem for most people. We will try and make a few changes in service to combat this."

Per-Gunnar Andersson was the only 'major' retirement, the Swede going off the road in his Suzuki SX4 WRC near the end of SS2. He was unable to rejoin and consequently finishes the day prematurely.

In the Junior World Rally Championship category, Sebastien Ogier took the lead immediately in his C2 S1600 and already lies 39 seconds up on Michal Kosciuszko's Suzuki Swift. Martin Prokop completes the JWRC top three followed by Alessandro Bettega's Renault Clio R3 and Aaron Burkart.

The action now resumes at 13.58 hours local time, when all three of this morning's stages will be repeated to conclude the opening leg.



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