Excellent start for Seb & Francois

Excellent start for Seb & FrancoisFrom Citroen Press [ 08/04/2005 ].
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An outstanding first day run has seen Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena emerge as early leaders of Rally New Zealand. Their team-mates François Duval and Stéphane Prévot follow in an excellent 3rd place, less than 4s behind Marcus Grönholm/Timo Rautiainen, and there is a palpable feeling of satisfaction in the Citroën camp.

"It's really good," smiles Guy Fréquelin. "Our two previous visits to Auckland were essentially given over to familiarising ourselves with this event and were anything but easy. There is still a long way to go before the finish and both our two crews will probably have to fight hard to defend their positions. But whatever happens between now and Sunday afternoon, I sense that, in association with our partner Michelin, we have crossed an important watershed on this event which is difficult to master because it is so unique… But we all dearly want to succeed!"

Despite his confident mood prior to the start, Sébastien Loeb hardly imagined he would find himself in the lead after the first loop of four stages, especially since rain on Thursday tended to lessen the importance of running order over the ‘Parahi' (SS1) and ‘Batley' tests. The reigning World Champion was therefore particularly pleased to find himself in front at lunchtime service even if the gaps – with the top-three split by just 8/10ths of a second – were extremely slender. Despite suffering from a little understeer and minor brake problems, François Duval underlined the potential of the Xsara by completing the first loop in 4th position.

The second loop featured a second pass over the morning's last three stages. "Soon after the start of ‘Batley 2', I felt my decision to run with a harder compound tyre was the right choice," explains Sébastien. "That feeling was reinforced by my car's handling and I was really able to push through the three repeated stages which had cleaned up since the morning. That said, I didn't think I would be able to pull out such a big gap. There was a lot of surface gravel in the last stage of the day which hadn't yet been covered but the balance of my car enabled me to cope with that. The progress we have made here is due to a number of factors: I have more experience, I am able to adapt my driving to the terrain, to brake late and stay on the clean lines through the corners. And that's also possible because the car allows me to do it. It has improved on all fronts, as have our tyres. Those in the hunt for victory tomorrow will benefit from the same stage conditions. I will try not to make any mistakes and defend the gap I have pulled out…"

"The final stage of the day was new for everyone," adds François Duval, "and my 11th position on the road here was an advantage. I am really pleased to be 3rd this evening on a rally that requires so much experience, especially since it is still possible to fine-tune the set- up of my Xsara. I'm not far behind Marcus [Grönholm] but that won't change my approach. I will keep to the same pace tomorrow without worrying about my stage times. As I have already said, I will be delighted if I can score the six points for Citroën and myself that go with 3rd place."

In 8th position at the end of Leg 1, Manfred Stohl's impressive run with his privately-run Xsara rounds off a particularly successful day for Citroën. The Austrian driver, who is competing on his first gravel event with the Xsara, is in the provisional Drivers' points.