LOEB AND HIRVONEN MOVE CLEAR
| Rally of New Zealand | Day 1
Featuring over 200km of timed stages, including the legendary Whaanga Coast test, the first leg of Rally New Zealand turned out to be full of incident. After both produced flawless performances, the Citroën Total World Rally Team crews quickly took the top two positions.
On the day’s final stage, Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena grabbed the lead from their team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who had led the rally for most of day one. Just four seconds separated the two DS3 WRCs at the end of Friday’s leg.
The competitors left Auckland Waterfront before sunrise, as they started the rally with a long touring stage to Raglan, 170km to the south. As long as the second and third legs combined, Friday’s itinerary was based around a loop featuring the Te Hutewai, Whaanga Coast, Te Akau South and Te Akau North stages. The midday service period was scheduled remotely in Raglan, which meant that the mechanics could only use spare parts stored on board the rally cars.
Based on the weather forecast provided by Météo France, which suggested the stages would be mostly damp, the Citroën crews opted to fit Michelin Latitude Cross soft tyres for the morning. Mikko Hirvonen grabbed the lead after winning the Whaanga Coast (SS2) stage in the mud and rain. Then Sébastien Loeb responded to his team-mate’s efforts to go quickest on both Te Akau stages. As the crews reached the midday service period, the Finn led the Frenchman by less than four seconds.
“We made the right choice in deciding to go first and use soft tyres,” confirmed Mikko. “But you can see that the choice of starting position hasn’t had a radical impact on the outcome of the race, since Latvala is less than 15 seconds behind,” added Seb. “The rally could become increasingly about strategy, because our ten soft tyres may not be enough if it continues to rain.”
The second loop turned out to be almost identical to the first, with Mikko Hirvonen unbeatable on Whaanga Coast and Sébastien Loeb unstoppable on Te Akau. The eight-time World Champion snatched the lead from his team-mate after SS8: “I really had to fight to grab the lead from Mikko, who was particularly quick in the mud. We made different choices in terms of the tyres, as I combined four hard and two soft tyres, whereas he had taken six soft tyres. I don’t know if it was the best option, but it meant that I kept two soft tyres for the rest of the rally.”
“Seb undoubtedly made the better tyre choice for the afternoon; in any event, I couldn’t hold him off on SS8,” admitted Mikko. “I’m pleased with how things went today. I had a lot of fun driving on these magnificent stages and we had good pace, which has helped us to move clear of the rest of the field. We’re now at the half-way stage, but we’re going have to manage the rest of the rally carefully. Managing the weather and making the right tyre choice remain the keys to success.”
“From the engineers to the drivers, and not forgetting the guys monitoring the weather and the mechanics, the entire team produced an excellent performance today. We weren’t sure that we had made the right choice, but it is clear that we have a very successful day,” stressed Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal. “I don’t think that the race is over, however, because it may yet come down to how the ten soft tyres allocated to each driver are managed. You must remember that we are competing in what is in reality a winter rally with the same equipment that we had a few weeks ago in Greece! The time differences can disappear just as quickly as they appeared, so we cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal.”