Sebastien Loeb got his title defense off to the best possible start today, leading Rally GB after the first day’s action. But Mikko Hirvonen is still right behind him, only 5.3 seconds off the pace.
Loeb had been fastest on the morning loop of stages, but Hirvonen clawed back 3.7 seconds on the afternoon loop and was still reasonably happy with his performance today.
“I was too cautious and made some small mistakes,” said Hirvonen. “I slid too wide in some corners and perhaps I was trying to drive too hard. I felt confident but I knew I needed to make my driving neater because I couldn’t afford to drop any more seconds. My driving was much better this afternoon and if I can keep that level tomorrow then I will be happy.”
Meanwhile Loeb was still pondering the final stage of the day, where he lost 1.1 seconds to Hirvonen, and wondering how he lost so little time to the Finn.
“I thought I was much slower in the stage,” he said. “I didn’t understand it. It was like the first stage in the loop, I had understeer and was sliding around in the middle.”
He continued; “I still feel confident that I can win, but it’s so close that it's very difficult to say who will be fastest tomorrow. All I know is that the feeling is okay and I hope we can continue like this.”
But Hirvonen and his Ford team may be a little worried about reliability, after both Jari-Matti Latvala and Khalid Al Qassimi had driveshaft failures in the other works Fords.
“It was a frustrating morning,” said Latvala. “After about 24km of the first stage I turned into a corner and the front left driveshaft broke and the car spun. I don’t know how it happened.”
This in turn also damaged Latvala’s front brakes badly, dropping almost 7 minutes to Loeb by the day’s end.
“I had a few close escapes as a result of driving without brakes at the front and nudged a bank in the second test. Unfortunately we couldn’t fix the car properly but at least we managed to repair the brakes. We’ll make full repairs tonight and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Latvala wasn’t the only one with mechanical woes. Henning Solberg had a mis-firing engine all day, and Matthew Wilson‘s Ford was blighted by a differential problem, dropping them to 6th and 7th respectively.
Stobart’s problems were Sebastien Ogier‘s lucky break, with the Frenchman dropping over a minute on Stage 6 with a puncture.
Another interesting battle emerged between Loeb’s team-mate Dani Sordo and Citroen Junior driver Petter Solberg. Solberg currently holds 3rd, 1.1 seconds ahead of Sordo, and was pleased with his progress today.
“I’m very, very happy,” said Solberg. “It has been hard but we have been getting better all day and we are really close to the two in front of us. They are fighting for the World Championship, but we are very happy to be in third.”
Eyvind Brynildsen leads the PWRC class by over a minute in his Skoda Fabia S2000, ahead of Pirelli Star Driver Jarkko Nikara (not nominated for points), Patrik Sandell and Martin Prokop.
“I'm very happy!,” said Brynildsen. “This has been an unbelievable day. The car has just been perfect. I'm flying in those forests – it's amazing. I didn't push so much in the second stage through the afternoon; we had a good lead which I'm trying to keep.”
After a slow start Sandell made up ground on Prokop and eventually took 2nd from the Czech, but he was still hindered by an intercom problem, meaning he couldn’t hear his pace notes.
Prokop admitted he struggled on the second loop of stages, and expected a tough weekend trying to keep up with those in front.
“It's hard to keep up with the S2000 cars,” said Prokop. “I'm pushing as hard as I can. Everything is okay, but it's tough.”
PWRC regulars and Subaru drivers Nasser Al-Attiyah and Patrik Flodin both retired on SS4, Al-Attiyah running wide and getting stuck in a ditch, and Flodin ripping a wheel off his car, and unable to continue.
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total WRT 1hour 15mins 22.1secs
2. Mikko Hirvonen BP Ford Abu Dhabi +00mins 05.3secs
3. Petter Solberg Citroen Junior Team +00mins 40.5secs
4. Dani Sordo Citroen Total WRT +00mins 41.6secs
5. Sebastien Ogier Citroen Junior Team +02mins 41.3secs
6. Henning Solberg Stobart VK Ford +02mins 50.1secs
7. Matthew Wilson Stobart VK Ford +03mins 23.0secs
8. Conrad Rautenbach Citroen Junior Team +04mins 54.6secs
9. Jari-Matti Latvala BP Ford Abu Dhabi +06mins 50.1secs
10. Eyvind Brynildsen Skoda Fabia S2000 +07mins 52.0secs
1. Eyvind Brynildsen Skoda Fabia S2000 1hour 23mins 14.1secs
2. Patrik Sandell Skoda Fabia S2000 +00mins 57.1secs
3. Martin Prokop Mitsubishi Lancer Evo +00mins 57.4secs
4.Toshi Arai Subaru Impreza WRX STi +02mins 07.8secs
5. Bernardo Sousa Abarth Grande Punto S2000 +03mins 00.5secs