Loeb Leads After Leg One in NZ

World Champion Sebastien Loeb opened up a healthy advantage after the first leg of the New Zealand Rally north of Auckland on Friday

Loeb Leads After Leg One in NZ

The Frenchman won three of the eight special stages to finish the opening day 23.1 seconds ahead of former World Champion Marcus Gronholm.

Loeb's Citroen teammate Francois Duval finished runner-up in each of the final three stages to end the day in third place overall, just ahead of current championship leader Petter Solberg of Norway.

Solberg, who won the New Zealand rally last year and is leading this year's championship after winning the previous two rounds in Sweden and Mexico, took the opening stage despite going first on the notoriously slippery gravel roads.

He still held the overall lead after the first three stages but slowly dropped back to finish the day more than 31 seconds behind Loeb.

Solberg's Subaru teammate, Chris Atkinson, scored his first ever stage win when he topped the times in the second stage.

To prove it was no fluke, the Australian did it again when he won the final stage to complete the day in fifth spot.

Finland's Gronholm had won the second and fourth stages in his Peugeot to climb into second overall but could not keep pace with the ultra-consistent Loeb, who won the season-opening race in Monaco.

Loeb finished second in each of the first three stages then third in the fourth stage to take the overall lead for the first time.

He was just 0.6 seconds in front of Gronholm at the halfway stage but won the next three stages to build up a 22.2 second lead.

He was fourth on the final stage but still finished ahead of his main rivals to end the day with a handy advantage.

The three-day New Zealand rally is the fourth round of the 16-rally season.

The 20-stage event covers a total distance of 1,128 kilometres and ends in Auckland on Sunday.

Standings after Leg One:


Pos Driver                       Make        Time  
 1. Sebastien Loeb (France)      Citroen     1hr 12min 1.1 sec
 2. Marcus Gronholm (Finland)    Peugeot     +23.1 sec
 3. Francois Duval (Belgium)     Citroen     +0:26.7
 4. Petter Solberg (Norway)      Subaru      +0:31.7
 5. Chris Atkinson (Australia)   Subaru      +0:54.3
 6. Toni Gardemeister (Finland)  Ford        +0:59.7
 7. Markko Martin (Estonia)      Peugeot     +1:09.2
 8. Janne Tuohino (Finland)      Skoda       +1:33.2
 9. Manfred Stohl (Austria)      Citroen     +1:47.2
10. Harri Rovanpera (Finland)    Mitsubishi  +1:53.1

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Loeb Takes Early Lead in NZ
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