Tyre selection proved pivotal on Day One of the WRC’s Brother Rally New Zealand. Frontrunners opted for soft compound tyres in the wet, slippery and muddy opening stages, while others gambled on hard compound tyres on the loose rocky surface. It was the Citroën Total World Rally Team’s drivers Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen who dominated proceedings, winning seven of the eight stages thus far.
With a healthy lead over their rivals, the two Citroën factory crews kept their noses clean to keep their Ford factory counterparts behind them. In fact, the fastest Blue Oval competitor is privateer Russian Evgeniy Novikov. Petter Solberg (Ford World Rally Team) gambled on the hard compound tyres, and lost over 51s seconds to his rivals in the first two speed tests, finishing Day One 01min 39sec off the leaders in fourth position overall. Solberg commented on his predicament at the mid-day service: “We have to just keep on pushing. We had some improvement in those last two stages but it doesn’t matter. The wrong tyre choice is the wrong tyre choice.”
Ford World Rally team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala set off 13th on the road but their selected start position proved erroneous as the tracks became ripped and muddier as the WRC machines tore through the stages, but he was able to set the scratch time in SS1. Running third overall in SS7, he clipped a fence post in a corner he cut too deep and lost over four minutes. He finished Day One in ninth overall.
It was a ding-dong affair at the front, with Hirvonen showing why he is such highly-rated driver. He outpaced Loeb on the opening loops of stages and enjoyed a 03.9 second advantage over his team-mate, but the Frenchman reeled him in on the afternoon’s repeat runs and claimed three stage wins.
Ott Tanak (M-Sport Ford World Rally Team) is fifth, Neuville (Citroën Junior Team) sixth overnight with Spaniard Dani Sordo the best of the Mini drivers, bringing his Prodrive WRC Team Mini into the final service in seventh position. WRC Team Mini Portugal driver Armindo Araujo is eighth, and Latvala now ninth, American Ken Block (Monster World Rally Team) in tenth.
Tomorrow, Saturday, competitors tackle 143.01km of stages through the Kaipara and Whangarei regions before the final day on Sunday which includes 63.39km of competition through the tarmac runs around Auckland Domain super special stage and stages around Puhoi and Kaukapakapa before the ceremonial finish at Silo Park on Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter.
Day One Leader Board:
01) S. Loeb (Citroën) – 02h 07m 35.0s
02) M. Hirvonen (Citroën) + 04.0s
03) E. Noivkov (Ford) + 01m 31.0s
04) P. Solberg (Ford) + 01m 39.3s
05) O. Tanak (Ford) + 01m 47.0s
06) T. Neuville (Citroën) + 02m 18.0s
07) D. Sordo (MINI) + 02m 34.3s
08) A. Araujo (MINI) + 04m 36.9s
09) J-M. Latvala (Ford) + 04m 56.1s
10) K. Block (Ford) + 06m 25.3s