Sebastien Loeb stormed into the Rally New Zealand lead at the end of day one following a battle with Citroen team-mate Mikko Hirvonen, while another mistake for Jari-Matti Latvala dropped Ford's team leader out of contention.
Latvala had already been losing ground to the two leading Citroens even before an error on stage seven, Te Akau South. The Finn had been trying to save tyre life on the first two stages of the loop before charging on the two longer Te Akau stages that rounded off leg one, but he only got halfway through the first of them before going off the road after misjudging a cut in a muddy section. Latvala's Ford became stuck in a fence and needed assistance from spectators to get going on, eventually losing over four minutes and falling to ninth.
Loeb was the pacesetter for most of the afternoon, closing to within 1.5s of Hirvonen as he delivered a third consecutive stage win on the loop's Te Hutewai opener. Hirvonen then responded with a blistering time through Whaanga Coast, where - just as had been the case in the morning - Loeb was left perplexed by his team-mate's speed and could only watch in amazement as the lead jumped up to 7.6s again.
But that proved to be a brief flurry for Hirvonen. With tyre wear a major issue, Loeb changed to two hard tyres on the front of his Citroen while Hirvonen tried to get to the end of the loop on four worn softs. Although Loeb's soft/hard mixture caused some balance worries, it proved a better bet than Hirvonen's strategy, and by the end of Te Akau North, Loeb had established a four-second rally lead.
After languishing in seventh in the morning due to a disastrous choice of hard tyres, Ford's Petter Solberg joined the other frontrunners on softs at the start of the afternoon and flew. The Norwegian is back up to fourth and has closed to within 8.3s of third-placed Evgeny Novikov (M-Sport Ford).
Novikov's team-mate Ott Tanak holds fifth, ahead of Qatar Citroen's Thierry Neuville, and the Minis of Dani Sordo (Prodrive) and Armindo Araujo (Motorsport Italia).
In his first World Rally Championship appearance since Rally GB 2007, Manfred Stohl was running 10th in the Brazil Ford he usually fields for Daniel Oliveira, until a suspected broken driveshaft dropped him behind Ken Block's Monster Ford.
- Related links