David Schilke, WRC correspondent
Sebastien Loeb is right where he wanted to be in order to keep his World Rally Championship lead. After one day of mixed surfaces on the Spainish roads the Citroen driver finds himself half a minute clear of his rivals with nothing but smooth tarmac ahead. Like for many of his fellow competitors Friday was filled with ups and downs but as the dust finally settled Loeb had the pace, and luck, that no one could match.
“We’re in an ideal position,” said Loeb. “Our aim was not to lose too much time in relation to our rivals. Finishing the day twenty seconds behind Latvala would have suited me. And in the end, we’ve got a lead of thirty seconds, so it’s perfect! I had to push very hard all day. Tomorrow, being first out on the road will no longer be a handicap and we can choose the rhythm that we want to impose on the rally.”
...we’ve got a lead of thirty seconds, so it’s perfect!
In the morning Loeb had a clear advantage being first on the road as his dust had a large impact on those that followed. Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen, who is currently tied with Loeb for the title, lost a lot of time in the morning with the reduced visibility. Things went better for Jari-Matti Latvala, Hirvonen’s teammate, and the Finn found himself second overall. Sebastien Ogier, under orders from Citroen to support Loeb’s championship attack lined up third in the thick morning dust.
“In the first stage we couldn’t see anything because of the dust thrown up by the cars that started ahead of us,” said Ogier after the morning loop. “The further we drove the more the sunrise, which was straight in front of us, made things difficult. Some clouds of dust were so thick that I had to brake on the straights on several occasions. It was impossible to know where we were.”
The afternoon saw the order shaken up as Latvala had a much easier time following Loeb and took over the lead after the first afternoon stage. Latvala would go on to extend his lead in stage 5 but lost it all on the final night stage when he suffered a spin and then a puncture in the thick dust. Meanwhile Ogier had also had his own puncture on stage 5, handing third place to Hirvonen, who was still driving cautiously.
Latvala explained just how his strong lead was taken away in an instant, “I was unsure where I was because the visibility was so bad, and I was driving too hard for those conditions. I entered a right corner too fast and spun. I didn’t lose much time with the spin but I had to wait for a long time while the dust cleared so I could work out where the road was. A little further into the stage I hit some rocks and punctured a tyre, but it didn’t cost much time.”
The dust on today’s final stage made it impossible for anyone to out-pace Loeb as the dust never settled between cars, making visibility nearly impossible on the dark roads. With their auxiliary lights doing nothing to help, for most drivers this last stage of the day turned into a mini-epic stage all on its own.
For Dani Sordo, his chances for another podium melted away into the night when the dust caused the MINI driver to slow down, allowing Ogier to regain fourth overall. MINI teammate Kris Meeks had it ever worse when the dust got into his cabin, making even getting a breath of fresh air a challenging task. The pair closed the day in 5th and 6th respectively.
"Today the first stage, like the last one, was where we lost a lot of time - in fact over 40 seconds," said Sordo. "On the second pass of the long stage today, which was 35 kilometres, the intercom to the co-driver was broken at the start of the stage and it kept cutting out. I didn’t hear Carlos very well so it was difficult to know where the corners were, and that was bad. Then the final night stage was really bad as we had all the dust and it was impossible to see.
A pair of M-Sport Stobart Fords rounded out the top eight with Mads Ostberg just ahead of his teammate Henning Solberg. These two have the closest gap in the order after the first eventful day so expect a good team battle tomorrow on tarmac roads.
Retirements included a very disappointed Petter Solberg when he hit a barrier on the first stage. The privateer Norwegian had been fastest in Thursday’s shakedown and seemed poised for a solid weekend until the now infamous dust made it impossible for him to see his impending doom.
"It is possible to repair the car and restart again," said Petter, "but we have decided to preserve the car and instead put everything into the final event of the year, Wales Rally GB."
American rally driver Ken Block was also caught out by the visibility on the same barrier. Kimi Raikkonen has retired from the event as well after having a serious engine problem on the third stage.
The teams will now have a chance to wipe off the dust and switch their cars over to a pure tarmac setup for tomorrow. The mixed stages certainly made for an interesting first day but now the focus will be on finding optimal grip and less about finding their way in a dust storm. Loeb will be strong tomorrow on a surface he is known to dominate when luck is on his side. The battle may well be further down the order as Ogier will be under pressure to chase Hirvonen down and take the Finn’s potential podium away in order to maximize Loeb’s point advantage before the season finale in Wales. Ogier has 51.1 seconds to gain and 12 stages to do it in. As Loeb literally leaves his rivals in the dust, the season’s turning point may well come down to his teammate putting in a championship quality run of his own.
Click here for Rally de España day 1 results