Citroen privateer Petter Solberg shot out of the Rally New Zealand blocks yesterday and will lead a compact field into today's second leg of the World Rally Championship's fifth round. The Norwegian driver, a meagre 1.4secs in front of BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Jari-Matti Latvala, emerged on top after a dramatic opening leg of leaderboard changes and six-time world champion Sebastien Loeb's costly crash.
With 'sweeper' Solberg expected to lose time as the first car on the road, the top four drivers are separated by under nine seconds ahead of 155 gruelling kilometres of competitive routes today. "I just have to deal with it," said Solberg, the 2003 world champion. "I am calm, controlled and I feel great. The main thing for me is to know that Seb is behind me." Latvala, who was unhappy with his first day, fended off the threat of Sebastien Ogier of the Citroen Junior Team, despite the Frenchman going fastest on three of yesterday's eight gravel stages.
"I have a good road position [today]," said Latvala. "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." Dani Sordo, Loeb's teammate, is fourth in the second works Citroen, having led after four stages. With the perfect starting position of fourth, the Spaniard is confident. "The difference is not so big between the cars and I am really happy and enjoying it," he said.
Ford's Mikko Hirvonen is fifth, 20secs off the pace, while Loeb trails by almost 80secs after losing a minute when he slid wide and side-swiped a narrow bridge 5.4km into the 22km Cassidy run (stage four). "Maybe a podium is possible because there's a long way to go, but I'm down and I don't know what we can do now it's going to be tough," said the dejected Frenchman. * Compiled by Euan Megson