Citroen drivers Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen dominated the opening afternoon of competition on Rally d'Italia with the pair running one-two after two stages.
The penultimate round of the World Rally Championship got underway on Thursday afternoon with a brace of runs through the 17-mile Terranova test. Loeb and Hirvonen won a stage each just outside the rally's host town of Olbia.
The recently crowned world champion was immediately on the pace in Sardinia, quickest through SS1, but Loeb was forced to give best to his fellow DS3 WRC driver Hirvonen on the second stage.
Loeb returned to service with a lead of 1.1 seconds after 34 competitive miles on a road which he'd found rough in places.
"It's a great battle!" said Loeb. "It's just one second. We had to push really hard in this stage, but it was OK. The car is working very well."
Hirvonen was bubbling at the closeness of the scrap.
"I am really happy with the start," said the Finn. "I feel good in the car, I could feel the rhythm straight away. I want to win this rally, but everybody wants to win this rally. There are still three days to go, so let's see what happens."
Ford driver Petter Solberg was third, 13.9s down on the leader and ruing the decision not to run a lamp pod on the front of his Fiesta RS WRC for the second run.
"There was a delay at the start of the stage," said Solberg. "We had to wait an extra eight minutes before we went into SS2. OK, it's only eight minutes, but it made a difference. The Citroens had the lights on."
Thierry Neuville made a strong start in Sardinia, running fourth despite being disappointed with his effort through the opener.
Nobody made a better start to the event than Mads Ostberg. The Rally of Portugal winner was fastest through the first three split sections, before coming unstuck when he hit a rock and broke a steering arm on his Fiesta. He effected repairs to the car after the stage and maintained fifth at the end of day one.
Having been fastest at the morning's qualifying stage, Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala had elected to run first on the road through the double-run Terranova test. The Finn pointed to the fading light as the reason for wanting to run first on the road.
In the end, his gamble did not pay off. He was forced to sweep the loose gravel from the surface on the opener, costing him 15 seconds. His afternoon deteriorated further when he collected a rear puncture just before the mid-point of the stage.
"Ten kilometres into the stage I touched some bedrock on a left-hander and basically it broke the centre of the wheel and the air came out," said Latvala. "To lose only 30 seconds with this problem shows that Michelin did a good job with the tyres.
"But now it's very difficult for this event. The good thing is that the drivers are all making some different choices with the tyres and , if we get this right then we can have a chance."
Evgeny Novikov was seventh with Mini man Chris Atkinson eighth. Ott Tanak was a frustrated ninth after running on unsuitable hard compound Michelins. Martin Prokop rounded out the top 10.
Leading positions after SS2:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 37m59.1s
2. Mikko Hirvonen Citroen + 1.1s
3. Petter Solberg Ford + 13.9s
4. Thierry Neuville Citroen Junior + 26.2s
5. Mads Ostberg Adapta Ford + 33.5s
6. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 42.1s
7. Evgeny Novikov M-Sport Ford + 51.2s
8. Chris Atkinson Italia Mini + 1m28.9s
9. Ott Tanak M-Sport Ford + 1m31.4s
10. Martin Prokop Czech Ford + 1m48.2s