After an enthralling day's action in which four different drivers topped the leaderboard, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila ended the opening leg of Rally New Zealand in second place.  The Finns are just 1.4sec from the lead in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.  Team-mates and fellow countrymen Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are fifth in another Focus RS WRC, 20.2sec from the lead.

View RallySport Magazine's Rally New Zealand photos HERE

Although the opening leg of this fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship is the longest of the three-day event, it was very much the starter ahead of tomorrow's main course.  Drivers jockeyed for position on the fast and flowing gravel roads of North Island, aware that guiding themselves into a good place in the start order for the second leg was the most important task of the day.  Just 8.7sec covered the top four cars, with Hirvonen also firmly in contention one place behind.

The rally is based in Auckland for the first time since 2005 and that allowed today's route to journey into the Northland region, north of the city, to tackle roads that have not been used since then.  Drivers completed two loops of four gravel speed tests, three of which were used twice, before a short asphalt special stage at Auckland's War Memorial Museum ended the day.  There was just a brief 15-minute stop in Whangarei between the two loops in which to service cars.  The nine tests covered 159.18km.

A remarkably warm summer created dry, dusty conditions, and a thick layer of gravel covered the road surface.  It left the early starters at a disadvantage, as they swept the stones clear to leave a cleaner and faster line for those further down the running order.  With similar conditions expected tomorrow, the leading drivers focused on ending the day as close as possible to the lead, but in an overall position that will allow them to benefit from a lower start order.  

New Zealand's smooth, heavily cambered roads are a driver's dream and they are regarded as among the best in the world.  The pace was fast and furious this morning as Latvala settled into third from his position of fourth in the start order.

"I couldn't find a good rhythm in the opening two stages and I wasn't comfortable with my driving," said the 25-year-old.  "The third stage was better and the final one was fantastic to drive.  It was just like a stage at home in Finland and was probably the best feeling I've experienced this year.  There was a lot of loose gravel on the first two stages but the next two were better and they cleaned up more."

Consistent times this afternoon ensured Latvala became the fourth different leader after the seventh of the nine stages, but the Finn was happy to settle for second overnight.

"It gives me a good road position tomorrow.  I will have the advantage of seeing the braking points in the gravel from the car ahead and that will make a big difference.  I had a good, clear run today.  My only moment of concern came when I slid into a ditch on the long afternoon stage.  It's a tight battle on demanding roads and the fight for victory will go all the way to Sunday, so I must push to the maximum with no dramas.  Tomorrow's stages are more technical on narrower roads and the car will feel less stable on the asphalt sections with gravel tyres," he said.

Hirvonen, third in the start order, held third initially but slipped to fifth after the road cleaning process became more pronounced during the final two tests of the opening loop.  He remained there during the afternoon stages but admitted that he would have preferred to be closer to the leader.  He survived unscathed this morning after a bird flew into the windscreen of his Focus RS WRC, fortunately without shattering the glass.

"I can't explain just how enjoyable it is to drive on these roads," he said.  "It was like dancing with the car.  Maybe I've enjoyed them a little too much because I need to up the pace a fraction.  I can't afford to let the guys in front of me get away.  I was frustrated to lose time on the final two proper stages because I had a great run, but I have a perfect start position tomorrow and I'm still there fighting for the win.  My performance was OK, but not as good as it could have been.  The car set-up wasn't quite perfect and with only remote service, we had no opportunity to change it.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on what he labelled 'a good, solid team performance'.  "Today witnessed one of the closest battles we've seen so far this season with only 20sec covering the top five paces.  Jari-Matti has driven fantastically well while Mikko will start tomorrow in a great road position.  Both cars ran faultlessly and we're well-placed tonight," he said.

News from other Ford teams

Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin lie sixth in a Focus RS WRC, despite a side window breaking this morning to allow dust into the car and gearbox hitches this afternoon.  Team-mates Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor are eighth, the Norwegian driver unhappy with his car's handling.  Munchi's Ford duo Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc lie 11th.  Spaniards Xevi Pons and Alex Haro head a 1-2 in the S-WRC support category for the Ford Fiesta S2000.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second day is another long and demanding leg with 155.62km of competition, the bulk of it held south-west of Auckland in the Franklin and northern Waikato areas.  After restarting at 06.00, drivers face two identical loops of four stages.  The opening three are on country roads before a short test on the fringe of Auckland at the new Hampton Downs motor racing circuit.  To add an extra challenge, each of the day's country stages is mixed surface and the Hampton Downs test is all-asphalt.  Drivers return to Auckland for the final overnight halt at 18.08.

Leaderboard after Day 1
1.  P Solberg/P Mills                   NOR             Citroen C4              1hr 35min 51.3sec
2.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila               FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 35min 52.7sec
3.  S Ogier/J Ingrassia                 FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 35min 55.2sec
4.  D Sordo/M Marti                     ESP             Citroen C4              1hr 36min 00.0sec
5.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 36min 11.5sec
6.  M Wilson/S Martin           GBR&nbsp ;            Ford Focus RS   1hr 37min 01.0sec
7.  S Loeb/D Elena                      FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 37min 11.1sec
8.  H Solberg/I Minor                   NOR             Ford Focus RS   1hr 37min 36.6sec
9.  J Ketomaa/M Stenberg                FIN             Ford Fiesta S2000       1hr 40min 09.3sec
10 X Pons/A Haro                        ESP             Ford Fiesta S2000       1hr 40min 31.8sec
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