Sebastien Loeb leads Wales Rally GB after previous leader Jari-Matti Latvala suffered a puncture on the final stage of the first full day.
Loeb topped the Thursday evening superspecial around Cardiff Bay, but it was Latvala who hit the ground running when the rally started proper on Friday morning. The Finn won SS2 Hafren to take the lead, but then slipped back to third overall on SS3 Sweet Lamb when his engine stuttered after going through a watersplash. This handed the lead back to Loeb, but Latvala took it back after winning SS4 Myherin to lead into midday service. Loeb was 1.4 seconds back, with Petter Solberg half a second further back.
Loeb struggled on the second run through Hafren, dropping down to fourth. However, he recovered to win Sweet Lamb and then Myherin, taking advantage of Latvala's puncture on the final stage to retake the lead.
Solberg ended the day just 1.8 seconds behind Loeb, while Sebastien Ogier is in third, just 3.6 seconds behind his Citroen team leader. The Frenchman was fastest on SS5 Hafren.
Loeb said: “The rain caused some aquaplaning in SS5 and I think I dried the road for my pursuers. In the next two stages I felt a lot more at ease. We had a great scrap with the other three today. There's still nothing in it as SÃ©bastien Ogier and Petter Solberg are only four seconds behind.”
Solberg had to deal with a broken starter motor and gear selection issues throughout the day. The Norwegian said: I am really happy about the second today. Without the problems we were having, I know I would be even faster. We noticed that we had a gearbox problem on SS4, and it got worse during the afternoon. I am so surprised we managed to get second fastest time on the final stage, that shouldn't really be possible. So, I'm happy about second, which means a good road-position for tomorrow.
Ogier said: “I'm pleased to have survived this first leg. I pushed a bit harder this afternoon as I found the grip was more consistent despite the rain. I'm in an ideal position for the rest of the event and we're going to try and continue in the same vein tomorrow.”
Mikko Hirvonen struggled for pace yet again, finishing the day in fourth, 42.2 seconds off the lead. “I attacked as hard as I could, I couldn’t go any faster,” The Finn said at the end of the afternoon loop. “I made a couple of small mistakes in the Sweet Lamb stage when I overshot two hairpins but I didn't lose much time. There was heavy rain on all three stages, and although I’ve experienced worse in this rally, it wasn’t enjoyable.”
6.7 seconds behind Hirvonen is Dani Sordo, who spun on SS5. “I felt a bit more comfortable this afternoon,” he said. “We drove well with what was an extremely competitive car. I'm feeling confident for tomorrow. I'm going to try and set some good times in order to make progress up the leaderboard.”
Latvala's puncture dropped him to sixth, 1m07s behind Loeb. “My windscreen was misting and the visibility was bad and getting worse, because it was also foggy,” he explained. “I approached a right corner over a crest and I didn’t turn in early enough and hit the bank. It wasn’t until I reached the next junction that I realised the impact had knocked the tyre off the rim.
“A kilometre before the finish the tyre came off completely, and pulled off a large piece of panel work. It was in that final kilometre that I lost most of the time. The only mechanical damage was to the oil cooler, but we fixed that after the stage finish,” added Latvala.
Henning Solberg is seventh, ahead of top British driver and Stobart teammate Matthew Wilson. Mads Ostberg is ninth in his Subaru, while Kimi Raikkonen rounds out the top ten.
Raikkonen said: “It was very difficult to judge the amount of grip. Some places, for example, looked slippery but in fact offered quite a lot of grip. I'm still lacking a lot of experience in these conditions. My driving is improving bit by bit. We're heading in the right direction.”