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Mikko Hirvonen takes early Rally New Zealand lead

Mikko Hirvonen, Citroen, New Zealand 2012Mikko Hirvonen holds a narrow lead over his Citroen team-mate Sebastien Loeb after the opening morning of Rally New Zealand.

Citroen's decision to send its cars out early in the running order in the expectation that rain would cancel out New Zealand's usual issues with loose gravel proved correct - although it did not look that way after the relatively dry SS1, which Jari-Matti Latvala won. The Ford driver had taken the more traditional choice of running at the tail of the World Rally Car pack, hoping that those around would clean the surface for him.

But on this occasion, running first was no disadvantage, and by the end of the four-stage loop, Latvala had fallen from first to third, 16 seconds adrift.

That still put him in a far better position than his team-mate Petter Solberg, whose hard tyres were not anywhere near as effective as his rivals' softs, leaving him nearly a minute and a half down after just four stages.

Loeb had been as far as 10s behind Hirvonen after SS2, before wins on both Te Akau stages brought the champion back to within 3.9s of his team-mate.

Thierry Neuville had been fourth for most of the morning, until spinning his Qatar Citroen and then struggling with tyre wear. That allowed M-Sport Ford's Evgeny Novikov and Ott Tanak into fourth and fifth.

Prodrive Mini driver Dani Sordo shared Solberg's hard tyre strife, and also lost time with gearbox issues, leading him eighth ahead of fellow Mini man Armindo Araujo.

S2000 class leader Hayden Paddon is impressing on home ground in 10th overall, although with both Protons retiring on the opening morning, he is set to have little opposition in his division.

Leading positions after SS4:

Pos  Driver              Team/Car         Time/Gap
 1.  Mikko Hirvonen      Citroen        1h04m06.2s
 2.  Sebastien Loeb      Citroen            + 3.9s
 3.  Jari-Matti Latvala  Ford              + 16.0s
 4.  Evgeny Novikov      M-Sport Ford    + 1m00.5s
 5.  Ott Tanak           M-Sport Ford    + 1m05.7s
 6.  Thierry Neuville    Qatar Citroen   + 1m25.8s
 7.  Petter Solberg      Ford            + 1m28.4s
 8.  Dani Sordo          Prodrive Mini   + 1m52.6s
 9.  Armindo Araujo      Portugal Mini   + 2m29.3s
10.  Hayden Paddon       ASM Skoda       + 3m28.2s
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