Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena take the early lead in on the first day of the FIA World Rally Championship’s round seven at the end of the eight demanding stages of Rally New Zealand. The eight times championship Citroen team holds a very slight margin of four seconds over their teammates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen. Loeb won five of today’s eight stages while Hirvonen was fastest on two of the special stages. It was the final SS8 – the second pass of Te Akau North – that earned Loeb the overall lead.
“I really had to fight to grab the lead from Mikko, who was particularly quick in the mud. We made different choices in terms of the tyres, as I combined four soft and two hard tyres, whereas he had taken six soft tyres. I don’t know if it was the best option, but it meant that I kept two soft tyres for the rest of the rally,” Loeb said.
I couldn't hold him off on SS8.
Hirvonen admitted, “Seb undoubtedly made the better tyre choice for the afternoon; in any event, I couldn't hold him off on SS8. I’m pleased with how things went today. I had a lot of fun driving on these magnificent stages and we had good pace, which has helped us to move clear of the rest of the field. We’re now at the half-way stage, but we’re going have to manage the rest of the rally carefully. Managing the weather and making the right tyre choice remain the keys to success.”
Placing third at the day’s end was M-Sport Ford’s Evgeny Novikov and Denis Giraudet. The Russian is over 1.30 minutes behind the leader. He commented, “The tyres were not so good at the end of the day but I am happy with my position overall. It has been a good day and I made the right tyre choices. We will try to keep the same speed tomorrow, but we know Petter [Solberg] will be fast.”
The tale of the story today actually lies with the Ford factory team. Like his fellow competitors, Petter Solberg had a challenging day, and sits fourth; 8.3 seconds from taking a podium position. The Norwegian and Chris Patterson have two days to make up the ground in their Fiesta RS.
“It could have been a better morning! We made a decision as a team to choose hard tyres. We had to estimate how the conditions would be as the morning progressed, and we made a mistake. We had a good run this afternoon, trying to climb the leaderboard sufficiently to be close to the podium tonight,” said a disappointed Norwegian.
After winning the qualifying stage, Jari-Matti Latvala appeared on good form. Ford and their Finn selected the 13th starting position and it looked like they had made the right call, as Latvala and co-driver Miikka Anttila took the first stage win. Disaster struck on the 31.82 km stage seven, which is very fast. The Finn was flying and perhaps pushing to stay in touch with the two leading Citroens – Hirvonen and Loeb – and Latvala ended up in fence. He lost nearly five minutes to the leading duo, and is currently in ninth position.
Latvala explained, “I spun at a slow second gear corner. I saw that some drivers had taken a big cut so I tried to do the same. The front right of the car touched a hole and the car spun through 180 degrees. I was quickly back on the throttle but the car hit a fence and some wire wrapped itself around the wheel. The car wouldn’t move. I had to wait until a farmer came with some cutters to free the wire.”
Placing fifth at day’s end was Ott Tänak and co-driver Kuldar Sikk for the M-Sport Ford Team. It is there first adventure in New Zealand and consistency plus the right tyre choice allowed them to secure the position.
Thierry Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul ended sixth on the opening day of their first time contesting the event.