Mikko Hirvonen takes a solid lead into tomorrow's second leg of Rally New Zealand but will come under friece attack from Sebastien Loeb. After a sensational day, Richard Mason is first New Zealander by more than 90 seconds and leads the production car field by more than 30 seconds against the cream of world Group N rallying.
Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen leads the Repco Rally New Zealand by almost 28 seconds after a drama-packed day on the roads of western Waikato.
The works Focus RS driver has a solid margin over world champion Sebastien Loeb I(Citroen C4 WRC) after the Frenchman picked up a 30-second time penalty for clocking in three minutes late to the start control for the sixth special stage.
Loeb lost the time trying to get the C4’s engine refused to start half a minute before he was due to drive into the control.
He and co-driver Daniel Elena worked on the engine trying to get it to fire, and then bump-started the reluctant Citroen. By that time he was three minutes overdue.
Loeb won the sixth stage but the penalty has given him a huge margin to try to haul back tomorrow, especially from a driver who has been as smooth, fast and consistent as Hirvonen has today.
The conspiracy theorists have been suggesting Loeb took the penalty deliberately to avoid being seeded first on the road tomorrow, but the 30-second margin looks too great a gamble for that to have been the case.
The theory goes that the roads tomorrow are heavily gravelled and are used only once which increases the handicap of being first car on the road.
Loeb had been hampered today by running as first car, “sweeping” the tracks of loose gravel.
That and a small “off” on Stage One saw Hirvonen and teammate Jari-Matti Latvala take the top two positions after the first run through the Pirongia and Waitomo stages.
After three tests Hirvonen was 9.4 seconds ahead of the Frenchman.
But on the second run through the same roads, Loeb fought back, winning the first two and going into the sixth test 0.7 of a second behind the Finn.
He won the sixth stage but the 30-second penalty dropped him to 27.4 seconds behind the Ford.
Hirvonen raised that to 27.8s by winning the super special stage at Mystery Creek.
Loeb says that though he’ll be running second on the road and with a better track through the gravel than Hirvonen, “we’re 28 seconds behind and that’s a big gap. We’ve lost too much time.”
Can he get the time back? “I don’t know. We will see. It’s a long day tomorrow, and (it wouldn’t be) good to be first on the road.
“It was just a problem we had in the engine starter,” he said responding to questions about whether he had deliberately taken the time penalty as a tactical exercise.
Loeb’s teammate Dani Sordo is fourth at the end of Leg One. He’s followed by Latvala in the second Ford.
Francois Duval is fifth in a privateer Focus RS, and Estonian Urmo Aava is sixth after a solid day in a privately-run Citroen C4.
The works Subaru team has had a day to forget, with Chris Atkinson rolling his Impreza WRC 2008. He initially restarted the stage but stopped a few kilometres later and retired.
Subaru mechanics are working on the car and hope to have it re-fettled in time to start Leg Two tomorrow morning.
A mysterious problem which robbed his car of grip, hampered Atkinson’s teammate, former world champion Petter Solberg, on the first run through the set of stages.
The team made major suspension changes at the service break but Solberg was still off the pace in the afternoon and finished the day seventh.
Kiwi Richard Mason is the leading Group N (standard production) driver after a sensational day in the BNT Subaru Impreza WRX STi.
Mason even beat two works WRC cars on the day’s third stage, and has gone to the overnight halt as first New Zealander and fastest Group N driver.
He’s 12th overall, and 33.5 seconds ahead of Mirco Baldacci (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9) who leads the Production World Championship (PWRC) section of the event.
Mason is also first Kiwi, more than 1m 40s ahead of NZ Rally Championship leader Hayden Paddon (Evo 9) who has a chance of wrapping up the NZ title tomorrow.
Paddon is now 40 points ahead of Chris West (Evo 9) who had a horror day. The steering wheel broke in the third stage and he had to drive using only the steering column boss.
Then in the afternoon the Andrew Simms car was slowed by a loss of turbo boost pressure.
Paddon says his key focus tomorrow will be on getting closer to the pace of the PWRC front-runners as he strives to show what he can do against the world’s best production car pilots.
For Mason, the day will be about retaining his first New Zealander status, and keeping ahead of the PWRC pack.
Photo captions: Mikko Hirvonen; Sebastien Loeb; Richard Mason; Hayden Paddon.