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BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team stamped its authority on Rally New Zealand from the beginning of the opening leg this morning to take a lead it was never to lose.  Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila led initially before team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen moved to the front, ending the first of three days of competition with a 27.8sec advantage in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.

Latvala lies fourth in another Focus RS WRC, part of a trio of crews clustered behind Hirvonen who are covered by just 2.3sec.  Tactics played a part as Latvala deliberately eased his pace late this afternoon in order to gain a better start position for tomorrow's second leg of this 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Large crowds packed the centre of Hamilton last night as competitors received a traditional Maori welcome at the start ceremony, ahead of three days of action over smooth, flowing gravel roads in the lush, green hills of the Waikato region of North Island.  Today's competition was based south-west of the city and drivers faced two identical loops of three speed tests before a short super special stage at the rally base just outside Hamilton – a total of 138.00km of competition.

Torrential rain has swamped the area this month but dry and sunny weather has prevailed this week.  As a result the exposed areas of the special stages have dried quickly to leave plenty of slippery loose gravel on the surface.  However, the sections beneath the trees remained muddy and equally tricky.  The rain has been so heavy that organisers were forced to split the monster 43.98km Waitomo test into two parts after landslides made sections of the route impassable

Latvala was fastest from Hirvonen on the opening stage.  However, 28-year-old Hirvonen won the following two tests to end the opening loop 5.3sec ahead of his 23-year-old fellow Finn.  Sébastien Loeb, Hirvonen's arch-rival at the top of the drivers' championship standings, initially regained time this afternoon but the Ford driver stood firm at the top when the Frenchman fell back.

"I've never had such a good rhythm in New Zealand," said Hirvonen.  "When I have that kind of rhythm on these flowing roads, it feels as if I don't need to push too hard.  It's tricky to find the right balance here because if you cross the camber in the bends then you immediately slide off the line and lose time.  The roads have dried more quickly than we thought and it was slippery in the loose gravel, but I don't think road position made too much of a difference.

"Tomorrow I will be first on the road so it won't be easy on the slippery gravel.  I've been in that position before and just have to find a way around it.  I'm not sure there is a big difference between first and second in the start order but it won't be easy, especially as each stage will only be driven once so there is no chance to drive on cleaner roads.  There will be more loose gravel tomorrow than on any other day," he added.

Latvala dropped behind Loeb this afternoon but remained unperturbed, knowing third would offer a more favourable road position tomorrow, with some of the slippery surface gravel swept away by the cars ahead.  But when Loeb dropped time at the start of the penultimate stage, after which tomorrow's start order was calculated, Latvala had to respond to maintain that position.  He started the test four minutes after Loeb and as soon as the Frenchman finished, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team relayed a target time for Latvala to complete the stage in order to hold position.  The Finn eased his pace over the final few metres to judge the finishing time to perfection and earn the advantage for tomorrow.   

Latvala, who was edged into fourth by Dani Sordo on the final short test, was highly satisfied with his day.  "I'm pleased that my confidence and rhythm are coming back after my problems in Germany," he said.  "It felt about 95 per cent this morning.  I found it harder to get my driving together this afternoon and hit a bank in the penultimate stage, knocking the front bumper from the car.  The roads were quite dry but where it was wet, the tracks were really slippery.  They didn't clean up as much as I thought.

"I slowed towards the end of the penultimate stage to ensure a better road position for tomorrow.  Third will be a good place to start.  It will be a challenging day but I really like those roads so I'm looking forward to it," he added.

News from our Rivals

Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) closed to within 0.7sec of Hirvonen before he incurred a 30sec penalty when a jammed starter motor forced him to start the penultimate test late.  He won three of the four afternoon stages.  Team-mate Dani Sordo lay fourth all day until edging ahead of Latvala by 0.1sec on the final stage.  Toni Gardemeister (Suzuki) dropped 45sec on the opening stage after going off the road and then puncturing a rear tyre.  Munchi's driver Henning Solberg (Ford) lost seven minutes when he completed all three morning tests with no power steering.  He then received a 60sec penalty as the team rushed to change his car's hydraulic system.  Stobart driver Matthew Wilson (Ford) retired from eighth after this afternoon's opening test with gear selection troubles while Chris Atkinson (Subaru) rolled in the same test and then stopped with an engine problem just before the finish.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second day takes competitors north-west of Hamilton.  After three morning stages, drivers face a second pass over the short stage at Mystery Creek.  Two long afternoon tests further south near Te Akau complete the day.  Drivers re-start at 06.50 and face 130.00km of action before a 18.34 finish. 
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