Loeb leads Rally of NZ

2012-06-22 08:14

Auckland - Eight-time world champion Sebastien Loeb leads the Rally of New Zealand by four seconds from Citroen team-mate Mikko Hirvonen, snatching the advantage on the final stage of Friday's first day.

Hirvonen led from the second to the seventh of eight stages contested on the opening day of the 15-stage rally, but never by more than 7.6 seconds from the hard-charging Frenchman.

Loeb won the third, fourth, fifth and seventh stages to trail Hirvonen by only 4.6 seconds going into the final stage of the day. He then won that 32.13km stage to claim the overall lead and to set up a showdown with Hirvonen on Saturday's final day.

Ford driver Jari-Matti Latvala was the fastest qualifier on Thursday and won the opening stage from Hirvonen and Loeb. But the Finn's chances of repeating his 2010 win in New Zealand perished when his Ford Fiesta became entangled in a fence as he cut a corner on the seventh stage.

Latvala ended the first day in ninth place, 4 minutes, 51 seconds behind Loeb.

In winning Thursday's qualifying stage, Latvala earned the right to choose his starting position on the opening day which is often a key factor in the New Zealand rally.

The event takes place mostly on gravel roads and it is often better to start later, after earlier drivers had swept the road, creating better traction.

Latvala chose to start in 13th place while Hirvonen defied convention and chose to start first. He did so thinking that if it rained, roads would be softer and the gravel less of a factor.

His gamble paid off. He won the day's second stage from Loeb and Latvala to take a 10.9 second overall lead, which he worked hard to preserve throughout the day.

Hirvonen won the sixth stage along the Whaanga Coast, which is one of the most famous stages in the World Rally Championship, finding speed that Loeb couldn't match on the latter part of the stage to finish with a 7.6 second overall lead.

"Mikko was again very fast at the end. I don't know why," Loeb said. "I can't match his speed there."

Hirvonen was then in his element on the drying roads.

"I am having so much fun and this is a really great battle with Seb to be exchanging times back and forward like we are," he said.

Loeb then won the seventh stage, to cut three seconds out of Hirvonen's lead and took the overall lead for the first time when he beat Petter Solberg and Hirvonen home on the eighth and final stage of the day.

The rally now seems to be a two-horse race between Loeb and Hirvonen. Russia's Evgeny Novikov is third, 1 minute and 31 seconds off the lead, and Solberg is fourth is a further eight seconds back.

Results on Friday after eight stages of the 15-stage Rally of New Zealand, seventh round of the World Rally Championships:

1. Sebastien Loeb, France, Citroen, 2 hours, 7 minutes, 35 seconds.
2. Mikko Hirvonen, Finland, Citroen, 4 seconds behind.
3. Evgeny Novikov, Russia, Ford, 1 minute, 31.0 seconds.
4. Petter Solberg, Norway, Ford, 1.39.3.
5. Ott Tanak, Estonia, Ford, 1.47.0.
6. Thierry Neuville, Belgium, Citroen, 2.18.0.
7. Dani Sordo, Spain, Mini, 2.34.3.
8. Armindo Araujo, Portugal, Mini, 4.36.9.
9. Jari-Matti Latvala, Finland, Ford, 4.56.1.
10. Ken Block, United States, Ford, 6.25.3.