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As the seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship got underway at Brother Rally New Zealand today [22 June], Citroën Total World Rally Team’s Mikko Hirvonen had the overall lead for six of the day’s eight stages.

The Finnish driver was pushed most of the day through the route which went south of Auckland to Te Akau, west of Huntly, and south of Raglan, by team-mate Sébastien Loeb. The eight-time world champion inched in front by day’s end to hold a four second lead overnight.
Earlier in the day, it looked as if Ford World Rally Team pairing Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Antilla had made the right call, electing to run last, in position 13, at Thursday’s driver start order draw. The Finnish Ford crew came through the first 11.18 km Te Hutewai special stage with the quickest time, ahead of Hirvonen with co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen and Loeb with co-driver Daniel Elena. Latvala’s Ford team-mate Petter Solberg, meanwhile, admitted a poor judgement call to run hard compound tyres, losing nearly a minute to Latvala on the opening run.
The Citroën team-mates then pressed on during the first run through the scenic and changeable conditions on the 29.67 km Brother Whaanga Coast stage to put Hirvonen into the lead with Loeb not far behind. Latvala was bumped to third with young Citroën driver Thierry Neuville and young Ford M-Sport driver Ott Tänak rounding out the top five.
By the time the crews headed to the remote service in Raglan, Hirvonen had a lead of just 3.9 seconds over Loeb. Latvala with M-Sport’s other youngster Evgeny Novikov and Tänak completed the top five. Top Kiwi Hayden Paddon had tenth position overall and a massive lead in the Super 2000 World Rally Championship standings after a reasonably solid opening morning despite some handling issues he wanted to resolve in his Skoda.
At the service break, Hirvonen reported: “I am losing in some places and gaining in others. There’s not too much of a gap and I’m not too worried. I am very surprised at Petter’s tyre choice as it was very slippery in some parts. It is unfair not to be able to swap tyres because we are going so full out on the stages and it is hard to conserve them.”
Solberg added: “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.”
Loeb said: “We are second overall and everything is okay. We had the right tyre choice for sure.  The road position choice was the right one but there’s not a lot of difference.”
Repeating the same set of four special stages in the afternoon, Loeb took three stage wins to Hirvonen’s one while Solberg’s much-improved stage times saw the popular Norwegian climb up the overall standings. However Latvala dropped from outright contention when he left the road on special stage seven, the 31.82 km Te Akau South. He lost over four minutes being untangled from the fence and being returned to the road with the assistance of spectators. At the evening service, Ford engineers reported that with Latvala being competitive on the next stage, they believed there wasn’t anything wrong with the car. They added: “a good going over tonight and it will be all fine”.
Latvala’s incident helped Russian Ford driver Novikov into third place overall, with Solberg improving to fourth and Tänak continuing to hold fifth.
Neuville is 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, with Latvala now ninth. American Ken Block completes day one in tenth, describing the stages as “just amazing”. The American superstar Ford driver added: “It is so worth being here at this rally and we’re really glad we came.”
Top Kiwi Hayden Paddon slipped to 12th overall after suffering gearbox issues in the second run through Brother Whaanga Coast.
Three-time New Zealand rally champion Richard Mason, from Masterton, holds 13th overnight to lead Dunedin’s Emma Gilmour among competitors in the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship, powered by Brother (NZRC) field.
Tomorrow, Saturday, competitors tackle 143.01 km of special stages through the Kaipara and Whangarei regions before the final day on Sunday which includes 63.39 km 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.

Photos: Peter Whitten

Leaderboard after Day 1
1.  S Loeb/D Elena                      FRA             Citroen DS3             2hr 07min 35.0sec
2.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN             Citroen DS3             2hr 07min 39.0sec
3.  E Novikov/D Giraudet                RUS             Ford Fiesta RS  2hr 09min 06.0sec
4.  P Solberg/C Patterson               NOR             Ford Fiesta RS  2hr 09min 14.3sec
5.  O Tänak/K Sikk                      EST             Ford Fiesta RS  2hr 09min 22.0sec
6.  T Neuville/N Gilsoul                BEL             Citroen DS3             2hr 09min 53.0sec
7.  D Sordo/C Del Barrio                ESP             Mini John Cooper        2hr 10min 09.3sec
8.  A Araujo/M Ramalho          PRT             Mini John Cooper        2hr 12min 11.9sec
9.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila               FIN             Ford Fiesta RS  2hr 12min 31.1sec
10 K Block/A Gelsomino          USA             Ford Fiesta RS  2hr 14min 00.3sec
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