Defending world rally champion Sébastien Loeb set the pace on the opening leg of Rally New Zealand on Friday. The Frenchman seized the lead on the fourth stage and set the quickest times on SS5, SS6 and SS7 in his Citroën Xsara WRC.

Defending world rally champion Sébastien Loeb set the pace on the opening leg of Rally New Zealand on Friday. The Frenchman seized the lead on the fourth stage and set the quickest times on SS5, SS6 and SS7 in his Citroën Xsara WRC.


Earlier, pre-event favourite Petter Solberg made a perfect start to his bid to win a third consecutive rally by setting the fastest time on the first stage, despite running first on the road. Solberg proved the pundits, who suggested running first on the road would be a big disadvantage, wrong by completing the 25,33-km Parahi stage 1,7s quicker than Loeb in damp conditions.


Peugeot’s double world champion, Marcus Gronholm, then sliced just over a second off Solberg's lead with a win on the 19,33-km Batley stage (SS2). Solberg set the second best time in the Subaru, which was matched by Loeb, but Gronholm moved up from fourth to third overall - at the expense of Citroën's Francois Duval, who was only fifth quickest on the stage.


Aussie rookie Chris Atkinson claimed his first WRC stage win on the 11,24-km Waipu Gorge test (SS3). The Subaru driver was 1,2s quicker than Loeb, with Solberg a further 0,6s behind. The Norwegian was still in the overall rally lead, but only 1,1s ahead of his French rival. Atkinson moved up from eighth to seventh overall.


Although Gronholm topped the times on the 16,15-km Brooks stage (SS4), the final stage before the first service halt, Loeb eased into the overall lead. Gronholm moved into second place in the overall standings with a time that was 0,7s quicker than Atkinson’s. Loeb was third quickest ahead of Duval and Solberg.


Loeb built the first significant lead of the rally by winning SS5 by 7,5 seconds. On SS6, the Frenchman increased his overall lead to 14,4s and after SS7, Loeb was 22,2s ahead of the rest.


Atkinson then set his second top stage time on the 10,45-km Millbrook stage (SS8) - the final test of Rally New Zealand's opening leg. However, Loeb again increased his overall lead and team-mate Duval grabbed third place from Solberg in the Subaru.


Atkinson beat Duval’s time by two seconds, with Ford's Toni Gardemeister third, 2,7 seconds slower than the Belgian. Both Atkinson and Gardemeister moved up the overall order to fifth and sixth places respectively. Peugeot’s Markko Martin, who was fifth before SS8, was only 12th quickest on the stage and dropped to seventh overall.

Loeb was fourth quickest on the stage, but extended his overall lead over Gronholm to 23,1s going into the overnight halt. Duval was 3,6s behind Gronholm, with Solberg five seconds behind Duval and 31,7s behind Loeb.

Skoda's Janne Tuohino produced his best result of the day with fifth best time, which was 5,9s off Atkinson's mark. Mitsubishi’s Gigi Galli made it to the end of the stage despite alternator problems, losing only a further 15,2s to Atkinson.