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BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen controlled today's opening leg of Rally New Zealand to lead from start to finish in their Focus RS World Rally Car.  The Finns dominated the morning to win both speed tests and build a lead they maintained over the same roads this afternoon, ending with a 13.0sec advantage.  Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie third in another Focus RS, 49.2sec behind the leaders on this 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

New Zealand's North Island roads provide some of the best rallying territory in the world.  Smooth and flowing, they wind their way through lush, green countryside and heavy camber in the corners invites drivers to attack.  The 68 starters tackled two identical loops of two special stages south-west of the rally base in Hamilton before a short spectator test ended the leg after 127.52km of action.

Heavy rain last night was replaced by clear skies this morning, although the watery winter sunshine meant temperatures were cool.  The rain ensured the gravel roads were muddy and was exactly what championship leader Grönholm had hoped for.  Dry conditions would have left the tracks covered in a coating of slippery loose gravel.  That would have been a big disadvantage for the 39-year-old Finn, who started first, forcing him to sweep the roads clean for the benefit of those behind.

The rain bound together the gravel and Grönholm had the best of the conditions to aid his strategy of attacking hard over roads unknown to closest rival Sébastien Loeb, who missed this rally last year through injury.  Despite suffering from the 'flu, Grönholm won both morning stages to open a 14.8sec lead over Loeb.  The Frenchman retaliated over the same roads, which were drier, this afternoon but his two stage wins shaved only 1.3sec from Grönholm's lead and he clawed back another 0.5sec on the short final test.

"The opening two stages were the ones that made the difference.  It helped being first on the road in those conditions and my tyre choice was perfect," said Grönholm, who opted for BFGoodrich's soft compound rubber.  "The plan was to attack hard this morning and it paid off because starting first turned out to be the best position.  This afternoon I didn't look at the split times for Loeb and just drove to my own pace.  I didn't feel 100 per cent and the long 43km stage this morning left me feeling more tired than it normally would.

"I will push to the maximum tomorrow to try to take more time out of Loeb.  The gap between us isn't big enough yet but I hope it will be by this time tomorrow.  The morning stages are again new for him, and it's an advantage for me that only the short spectator stage is being repeated because he is always strong on the second pass," added Grönholm.

Hirvonen, who accepted the traditional Maori challenge on behalf of all 68 competitors at last night's start ceremony, was third fastest on four of the five stages in his Abu Dhabi-backed Focus RS.  The 27-year-old Finn was disappointed with the morning after admitting his choice of medium soft compound tyres was wrong.

"The difference between my tyres and those of Marcus wasn't so big but they didn't feel right.  If your choice isn't 100 per cent right, then a driver doesn't have 100 per cent feeling.  I started to push too hard and slid wide in a few corners.  Things were better this afternoon but I've been in this situation several times before this season, lying third with a large time gap on both sides of me.  I'm too far behind Marcus and Sébastien to catch them but seem quite safe in third.  The key thing will be to keep the pressure on and not make any mistakes.

"The roads were still slippery this afternoon in places.  They looked dry but they were still damp in some areas and it was tricky to pick out those sections," he added.

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said both Focus RS cars ran faultlessly.  "It was a great performance from Marcus, especially considering he has the 'flu and he twice had to drive one of the longest stages in the championship.  Mikko has enjoyed a solid day and we're in a good position for tomorrow," he said.

News from our Rivals

Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) regretted choosing tyres that were too soft this morning and despite winning two stages this afternoon he could not make large inroads into Grönholm's lead.  Behind Hirvonen, Chris Atkinson (Subaru), Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) and Dani Sordo (Citroen) were all covered by just a handful of seconds as they fought all day for fourth.  Just 12.1sec covers the trio tonight.  Petter Solberg (Subaru) suffered handling troubles and lies seventh.  Matthew Wilson (Ford) and Luis Perez Companc (Ford) were two of several drivers who crashed at a tricky corner on the opening stage.  Wilson damaged his car's bonnet which bounced open throughout the following stage while the Argentine dropped six minutes before he regained the track.  Xevi Pons (Subaru) retired from seventh after going off the road on stage three while Manfred Stohl (Citroen) crashed out on the penultimate stage.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg is the longest of the rally and is based north-west of Hamilton, with many sections hugging the spectacular Tasman Sea coastline.  After re-starting at 06.50, drivers tackle three tests in quick succession near Port Waikato before a second pass over the Mystery Creek super special stage.  The afternoon takes competitors slightly further south for two tests based around Te Akau.  They return to Hamilton for the final overnight halt at 18.29.

Pos  Driver     Car         Time
1. Gronholm Ford 1h 27:20.1
2. Loeb Citroen + 13.0
3. Hirvonen Ford + 49.2
4. Atkinson Subaru + 1:21.4
5. Latvala Ford + 1:29.2
6. Sordo Citroen + 1:33.5
7. P Solberg Subaru + 1:48.5
8. H Solberg Ford + 2:17.2
9. Aava Mitsubishi + 3:26.6
10. Wilson Ford + 4:29.7

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