Hamilton, November 17.
Ford drivers have stamped their authority on the opening special stage of the Propecia rally of NZ, near Pirongia in the western Waikato.
Works team leader Marcus Gronholm won the 20.38 kilometre test by 5.9 seconds from Focus RS teammate Mikko Hirvonen.
Hirvonen was 5.1 seconds faster than third-on-the-stage Manfred Stohl in a privateer Peugeot 307 WRC.
Dani Sordo was fourth in the first of the two works Citroen Xsara WRCs, 10.7 seconds behind Gronholm.
Sordo’s Citroen teammate Xavier Pons finished the test sixth, behind Subaru’s Petter Solberg.
The battle between Ford and Citroen is a crucial one.
Ford is 16 points ahead of Citroen in the 2006 manufacturers’ championship and needs to rack up three more points than the French marque to take the 2006 crown.
The drivers’ title has already been won by Sebastien Loeb who is sitting out the rest of the season while his broken arm heals.
Loeb did the pre-Rally NZ recce to work on his pacenotes for the 2007 event. He flew back to France last night.
In the world Group N championship class, Finn Jari-Matti Latvala (Subaru WRX) leads from Toshi Arai in another Impreza WRX.
Latvala, who won Group N in Australia, was 10th overall, with Arai dead-heating with Finn Juha Hanninen for 11th. Hanninen isn’t registered for the world championship.
In the battle for the Group N championship lead, Japanese Fumio Nutahara (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9) had the early edge over points leader, Nasser Al-Attiyah (Subaru).