Rally Argentina is a thoroughbred gravel rally, and as was the norm for much of 2008, Sebastien Loeb wasn't quite able to beat the competition on the loose surface. However, this time it isn't arch-rival Mikko Hirvonen in the lead, but rather Loeb's junior teammate at Citroen, Dani Sordo.
Sordo took convincing wins on SS4 and SS6, and drove very consistently, finishing every stage bar one in the top four. The young Spaniard's stated goal before the rally was to make inroads into Hirvonen's advantage in the World Rally Championship, where the two stand third and second, respectively, behind Loeb. While Hirvonen is in second, 5.1 seconds adrift, after the first leg, Sordo is in a position to battle for the victory.
The challenge that he will need to deal with tomorrow is the dust and loose rocks on the roads: as the overnight rally leader, he will need to open the roads tomorrow, a duty that certainly contributed to Loeb's third-place standing and 16.3-second gap to his teammate.
"I don't know about how the position will affect me tomorrow, but at the moment I'm first, and this is good," Sordo said. "I have a lot of confidence with the car, it's easy to drive, and I'll just try my best. Today Sebastien was first on the road and now he's third - so of course I will try to lose as little time as possible -- but it's also very important to learn how to drive first on the road. Maybe one day I'll be there more often."
Although he finished the day with a singular stage win in his Ford Focus WRC, Hirvonen feels comfortable with his second position going into Saturday's second leg. The Finn didn't push hard on the final stage, which he started tied with Sordo atop the standings; winning it would have given him the dubious privilege of running first tomorrow.
"Ideally I would have been behind (Loeb) for tomorrow, but with no splits on the final stage I just tried to do a steady drive and avoid punctures," Hirvonen recounted. "(Sordo) is driving fast and has found a good pace on the gravel. It's going to be an interesting race, but everything is looking good. No worries!"
Loeb's 16.3 seconds might have been enough for only fourth place, but the French rally star benefited from Jari-Pekka Latvala's misfortune: the young Finn was running fifth overall on SS6, just 9.1 seconds adrift of the lead, when he suffered a puncture on landing from a big jump.
"We lost something like 55 seconds," Latvala rued his luck at the end of the stage. "After one big jump we had a puncture, and we had to drive half the stage on a flat rear tyre. This rally is very hard on the tyres."
Unlike Hirvonen, Loeb was actually thinking that running first on Saturday might be an advantage, and on that final stage, SS9, he pushed hard, but to avail: he finished sixth, 14.7 seconds off Latvala's pace, and sits third in the first leg's standings.
"There might be some rain tomorrow, and in that case it might be better to be first on the road. So on the last stage tonight I decided to try and get first place," said Loeb. "Instead we stalled the engine twice in two hairpins, and so now we are third."
The surprise factor in the battle at the front was Petter Solberg, the 2003 world champion running his own privateer entry. The 2006-spec Citroen Xsara might seem out of date, but the Norwegian veteral was hustling it on the Argentine gravel with elan.
A win on SS4 combined with consistent top-five stage finishes earned him an overnight fourth place, just 18.9 seconds off the pace -- and an impressive 2.6 seconds away from the five-time champion Loeb, who is driving a 2009-spec works Citroen.
"I never ever thought I'd be able to keep up this sort of pace," Solberg admitted. "I even won a stage -- and I think I could have won a couple more actually -- but I'm struggling in some of the tight hairpins to get enough engine power to accelerate out of them. But still, I don't think I've been in such a close fight for about four years!"
Solberg's older brother, Henning, completes an impressive family showing with a strong fifth place, 47.9 seconds away from Sordo's total, in the M-Sport Ford Focus WRC. Then it's Latvala, battling back from his puncture, 18.5 seconds behind the elder Solberg.
Two more privateer Ford drivers, Matthew Wilson (M-Sport) and local hero Federico Villagra (Munchi's), hold down the last two points-paying places, though both are over a minute adrift of Latvala's works Ford.
Saturday's schedule has two runs through a sequence of four special stages, and is then capped by a 2.4-km stadium superspecial in Cordoba.