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The opening leg of the 2009 Cyprus Rally, which featured six asphalt stages contested with the cars running on gravel tyres, saw the two Citroën Total World Rally Team C4 WRCs get their weekend off to a flying start by claiming every one of the fastest times.

Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena emerged from the opening day at the top of the leaderboard, with Dani Sordo/Marc Marti following in hot pursuit. The contest is far from over, however, and tomorrow’s programme will see the action switch to some particularly challenging gravel stages.

Before serious business kicked off on Friday morning, competitors first took part in Thursday evening’s ceremonial start which was held at Limassol’s Sports Arena. The last driver off the ramp was Sébastien Loeb who received a rousing ovation which became even louder when spectators realised that Greek rock star, Sakis Rouvas, was sitting in the right-hand seat!

Despite pessimistic weather forecasts, the first day of competition started in sunshine as crews pulled out of the Limassol service park for the initial loop of three sealed surface stages. In keeping with his strategy, Sébastien Loeb hit the ground running and posted a resounding best time on Panagia 1 (30.33km) which immediately took him 13.9s clear of Mikko Hirvonen. He figured on top of the timesheets again on Mylikouri 1 (7.37km) and Geriakes 1 (29.40km), and checked into the lunchtime service break with a 42-second cushion over his direct rival.

"Running first on the road meant that I was able to profit from nice clean lines. I spent the morning trying to make the most of that in order to build up as big a lead as possible before we move on to the loose. OK, we’re not going as quickly as we normally would on asphalt, but I have to say that my C4 WRC is quite enjoyable to drive. The important thing was to strike the ideal balance and not slide about too much, but it was fun."

Team-mate Dani Sordo followed the World Champion home in second place on all three tests to hand Citroën an early one-two.

"The morning went very well. I felt more comfortable on SS2 and SS3 because the tyres gave more and more grip as they started to wear. At the end of the day, though, I didn’t find driving in these conditions to be that much fun because you’ve got to hold back all the time in order to look after your tyres."

After the 30-mlinute service halt, the crews returned for a second attempt at the same loop. Sébastien Loeb continued on his momentum and continued to pull clear at the top of the order thanks to fastest times on SS4 and SS5. The Frenchman’s winning streak was stemmed, however, when Dani Sordo claimed the best time on the day’s final test which was slightly damp.
With an overnight lead of more than one minute over the factory Focuses, Sébastien Loeb was understandably pleased with his day’s work.

"I took things fairly cautiously on SS6 because my tyres were fairly worn by then. The gap with Mikko is bigger than I had been expecting, but he’s not going to just sit back and let me just cruise home to Sunday’s finish! That said, a great deal will depend on the weather: if it continues to rain, being first on the road on Saturday could turn out not to be a disadvantage…"

Dani Sordo succeeded in holding second place and was equally upbeat about his day.

"I think I’ve been driving reasonably well. I dropped a little time at the start of SS6 because of the rain but things picked up after that and I went on to collect my first fastest time of the season."

Evgeny Novikov and Dale Moscatt, competing in the Citroen Junior Team, made progress throughout the day, ending it on a high with fifth-fastest time on the final stage and a provisional seventh overnight.

"We made a few small mistakes in the morning and had a slight impact on SS4," Novikov said. "The car is extremely competitive. Our fifth-fastest time this evening is encouraging for the rest of the event. I’m keen to get onto gravel now tomorrow, where I’m going to try and keep up the same pace."

Citroën Racing’s Director Olivier Quesnel believes there was a certain logic to the way today’s leg unfolded.

"This evening’s situation is what we had been targeting. Asphalt tends to suit us and, despite the cars’ rather unusual specification, our drivers showed that they felt comfortable in today’s conditions. We go into the second phase of the event on top, but it’s really a new rally that starts tomorrow…"

Results after Leg 1:

1. Loeb/Elena, Citroen

2. Sordo/Marti, Citroen, +41.8

3. Hirvonen/Lehtinen, Ford, +1:00.2

4. Latvala/Antilla, Ford, +1:08.3

5. Solberg/Mills, Citroen, +2:27.1

6. Ogier/Ingrassia, Citroen, +3:03.03

7. Novikov/Moscatt, Citroen, +3:16.0

8. Wilson/Martin, Ford, +4:25.9

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