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Sebastien Loeb has completed day one of RallyRACC-Rally de Espana leading the world championship qualifier by more than half a minute in his Citroen DS3 WRC.

The seven-time world champion had trailed Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala by 16 seconds at the start of the final stage but moved in front when Latvala lost time with a spin and a front-right puncture in his Fiesta RS WRC.

Latvala grabbed top spot on Friday afternoon’s opening test by capitalising on a cleaner and consistent gravel surface. By winning stage five the Finn was seemingly in control starting the day’s final run. But his delay through the dust-coated Les Garrigues night stage handed the initiative back to Loeb who hasn’t been beaten in Spain since 2005 and begins Saturday’s six all-asphalt stages with a clear lead.

“It’s been a very hard day,” said Loeb. “Luckily I had a bit of dust on the first stage but in the afternoon the road has been really difficult and I should have lost much more time.”

Loeb, running first on the road, grabbed the early initiative in his DS3 WRC when hanging dust created by the dry gravel roads slowed the bulk of his rivals due to a lack of visibility. But the cleaning effect when the stages were repeated in the afternoon was more apparent than in the morning and Loeb struggled.

Dust was also a factor on the night stage, where a virtual absence of wind meant the hanging dust from the gravel sections failed to disperse, which caused significant visibility problems for the drivers chasing Loeb, including Finn Latvala.

“It’s incredible difficult to drive in the darkness with the dust,” said Latvala. “We spun first and after that there was massive rocks on the road I couldn’t avoid. I hit the rocks and I’ve lost a lot of time. [My pace on Tarmac] is not going to be enough [tomorrow].”

Mikko Hirvonen, equal on points with Loeb after 11 rounds, lost time in the dust created by Loeb on Friday morning and by being too cautious as a result. He remains in contention in third overall, benefiting from the puncture that slowed Loeb’s Citroen team-mate Sebastien Ogier on the penultimate test. However, the Ford driver is 54.2s behind Loeb at the overnight halt in Salou, where teams will get additional service time to convert their cars from gravel to asphalt specification for day two.

Ogier began the event three points behind Hirvonen and Loeb, albeit under orders from his Citroen team to support Loeb’s title push. But a puncture nine kilometres into stage five dropped him out of the top three.

Dani Sordo’s hopes of extending his sequence of podium finishes to three events were dented when he was slowed in the hanging dust clouds of stage one, while an intercom fault proved a hindrance on the fifth stage. The dust clouds also slowed MINI team-mate Kris Meeke after his car filled with dust and made it difficult for the Briton to see and even breathe. Meeke is sixth overall at the end of day one.

Differential problems have hampered M-Sport Stobart’s Mads Ostberg in seventh place, while a persistent intercom glitch masked team-mate Henning Solberg’s ultimate speed. The Norwegian is eighth overnight, one place ahead of Russian Evgeny Novikov who is making his debut in a Citroen DS3 WRC and has impressed.

Behind tenth-placed Briton Matthew Wilson lies Super 2000 World Rally Championship class leader Nasser Al-Attiyah, with category rival Juho Hanninen one second back in his Red Bull Skoda.

Dennis Kuipers occupies 13th spot in his FERM Power Tools World Rally Team Fiesta with SWRC runners Craig Breen and Martin Prokop 14th and 15th respectively in their Fiestas.

Team Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi is 16th with Volkswagen Motorsport’s Yeray Lemes 17th in his Fabia S2000. Motorsport Italia MINI driver Armindo Aruajo lost ground with a build up of dust in his car and a spin. He completes day one in 18th, one place ahead of Peter van Merksteijn.

Federico Villagra lies just outside the top 20 in his Munchi’s Fiesta following early brake problems and a shortage of stage knowledge due to the fact he missed a chunk of the pre-event reconnaissance as a result of the travel disruption caused by an ash cloud in his native Argentina.

Norwegian privateer Petter Solberg failed to complete stage one after striking a drainage culvert in the heavy dust that coated the route. Ken Block hit trouble at the same point 16 kilometres into the stage, breaking the steering on his Monster World Rally Team Fiesta. An engine-related problem triggered ex-Formula One world champion Kimi Raikkonen’s exit on stage three.
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