Volkswagen Polo R driver Sebastien Ogier holds the lead of Rally Argentina at the end of Thursday's competition, the Frenchman returning to the service park in Carlos Paz with a 16.3sec advantage over his arch rival Sebastien Loeb in a Citroen DS3.
Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen, also in a Citroen DS3, is third, just 1.8sec behind Loeb.
After Wednesday night’s short head-to-head Super Special, today’s action was focused on two long gravel stages in the Sierras Chicas mountains and the Punilla Valley north of Cordoba.
The highly anticipated duel between Ogier, who leads the drivers’ championship standings, and reigning world champion Loeb is the headline battle of the rally. And Ogier clinched today’s opening round in convincing fashion.
After winning the Super Special, Ogier was fastest on Thursday’s opener to pull 8.8sec clear of the chasing pack, led by his Volkswagen team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala.
He lost half of that advantage on stage three, however, when he get stuck behind the Citroen DS3 of Dani Sordo who had rolled earlier in the test. But from then on Ogier was in dominant form, extending his lead with wins on the two repeated stages in the afternoon.
Returning to the WRC after nearly three months away, Loeb took some time to get back up to speed. He was 8.5sec slower than Ogier on the opening test but seemed to have rediscovered his mojo on the next after making damper adjustments.
But Loeb’s efforts to catch Ogier on the two afternoon stages were thwarted by a poor tyre choice. Gambling on a repeat of the morning’s dry and warm conditions, Loeb and his Citroen team-mates elected to fit Michelin’s hard-compound option tyre.
In the event, the skies clouded over, fog closed in and light rain on stages four and five favoured Ogier and Latvala who had stuck with the soft-compound. Ogier latest admitted that the conditions almost destroyed the rubber, but the Citroen crews, who struggled for grip, felt theirs was the worse option.
Latvala is fourth overnight, 22sec behind Hirvonen. The Finn had a day of mixed fortunes; from the highs of two second-fastest stage times, to the lows of a technical problem that left him without a handbrake on two stages.
Almost a minute behind the Finn is Evgeny Novikov. The Russian became the leading Ford driver after Mads Ostberg hit a rock on stage four and retired with a broken steering arm and driveshaft.
Volkswagen’s Andreas Mikkelsen is sixth, just 17.4sec adrift of Novikov, with Fiesta RS driver Thierry Neuville another 17.4sec further back in seventh.
Martin Prokop had a tough day trying to get used to the feeling of his Ford Fiesta RS on Michelin tyres after switching from DMACK. The Czech rolled on stage five but remains eighth, albeit more than four minutes behind Neuville.
Local hero Gabriel Pozzo is ninth in another Fiesta RS, with Sordo, who lost more than seven minutes with his roll on stage three, rounding off the top ten.
Friday’s second leg of Rally Argentina kicks off at 0625hrs (local time) with the first stage, the 40km Santa Rosa – Villa del Dique starting at 0833hrs.