A well-used World Rally Championship phrase points out that while a driver cannot win a rally on its opening day, he can certainly lose it. With the drivers' and manufacturers' title battles finely balanced, however, the experienced hands ensured there were no early big name casualties as Rally Australia got underway yesterday.
The pre-rally talk consensus was that BP Ford Abu Dhabi drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala would prefer the slippery gravel tracks found in the Tweed and Kyogle Shires stages. But a spectator-friendly, tarmac-based super special stage - four runs of which have been run already - has allowed their Citroen rivals, artisans of the sealed surface variety, to remain in sight. Latvala, winner of six of yesterday's nine off-road runs, produced a masterful day-long display to open up a 2.2secs overnight lead.
However, it was the Citroen Junior Team driver, Sebastien Ogier, came into his own in the 10th of the 12-round series. Four straight stage wins have ensured the young Frenchman is Australia's surprise package thus far. Both drivers' display bordered on perfection. "I had the flow - it was almost a perfect day," said Latvala. "I was a little disappointed with the super special, I lost too much time, but it was OK."
Ogier was equally content after some clever tactics of keeping a worn morning tyre as a spare to use it on the day-ending tarmac double run paid off. "We had a good position on the road and started quite cautiously - without taking too much risk," he said. "Our strategy was key; we got a good time using the old tyre on the tarmac - it's been a perfect day for us." Tougher challenges await them in today's second leg. Latvala will act as sweeper for the cars behind, a time-costing punishment for being first on the road, while Ogier - running second - will also be burdened by relatively raw road markings. Neither seemed particularly worried.
"I'm not too concerned, if it rains it'll be even better being first on the road," Latvala said. Ogier was also unworried. "I just have to keep concentrating and continue. I'm looking in front - when you do a rally, you always look for first place," he said. The pair will continue their tussle with three big names in an ominous chasing-pack. Separated by a mere 0.9secs, Citroen's Sebastien Loeb and Dani Sordo and Hirvonen complete the top five as all will try to capitalise on superior road conditions today.
Hirvonen, the championship leader who performed his opening leg sweeper role with bravery and speed, starts third. Despite dropping two places in the evening super specials, which do not influence today's road positions, he is relishing resuming his title battle with the five-time world champion Loeb. "It's been OK, not the perfect finish for the day, but I think I survived even better than I thought from cleaning the road. Everything is possible - it's all open now," Hirvonen said.
"It's going to be easier for me, that's for sure. Sebastien has a better starting position, he is behind and can have a look at what I am doing. It's going to be tricky but I'll go flat out and try to keep him behind." It was a disappointing day for the other Ford driver, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi. Al Qassimi, who collided with a tree stump on stage seven and subsequently retired, must shoulder a 35-minute penalty.
"Competitively it's over, I was up to eighth but the most important thing now is getting the feeling and maybe jumping a couple of positions," he said. The team director, Malcolm Wilson, said the cars could have been quicker on the tarmac stages. "But they've performed really well throughout the day," he said. "For Mikko to be within a second of Loeb after running first on the road is a good day's effort. There's no question we'd have taken that at the start of the day.
"Jari's drive was very mature, he had fantastic pace." firstname.lastname@example.org