PHOTO: Sebastien Ogier signs autographs for Spanish fans (Volkswagen pic)
SÉBASTIEN Ogier put one hand on a second straight FIA World Rally Championship drivers’ title after building a comfortable lead during a dusty opening day of Raly de Espana on Friday.
He completed the six gravel speed tests with a 36.6sec advantage in his Volkswagen Polo R as potential challengers dropped time in the morning due to a combination of hanging dust and the low sun.
Team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, who must finish ahead of Ogier to keep the title race alive into next month’s final round in Wales, leapt to second in the final special stage to head a quartet of drivers covered by 4.8sec.
Road-opener Ogier expected to lose time over the first loop of stages as he swept loose gravel off the road. However, his disadvantage was offset by the poor visibility, which slowed those behind him in the start order.
Thierry Neuville led briefly in the morning morning and was just 4.6sec behind Ogier until he lost 2min 20sec in the final stage. He was distracted by dust inside his Hyundai i20 and hit a bank, puncturing the rear-right tyre, which he stopped to change.
Latvala hit a rock in the opening test to begin a frustrating day for the Finn. He did not have the speed to match Ogier and languished in seventh for much of the leg until his final stage charge up the order.
Mads Østberg was 0.6sec behind in third in a Citroen DS3, but the Norwegian was frustrated after being held up in Kris Meeke’s dust in the morning and by Neuville’s dust in the afternoon.
Østberg was 0.1sec ahead of Andreas Mikkelsen’s Polo R.
Mikko Hirvonen enjoyed a trouble-free run to fifth in his Ford Fiesta RS, a further 4.1sec behind, with Robert Kubica completing the top six despite a final-stage spin.
Dani Sordo dropped 30sec waiting on the start line of the penultimate test when co-driver Marc Marti miscalculated their start time. However, the Spaniard was seventh in his Hyundai i20, with Martin Prokop, Neuville and Nasser Al-Attiyah completing the leaderboard.
Meeke retired after sliding wide in SS3 and dropping two wheels off the road.
He damaged two tyres and although he replaced one in the stage, he had only one spare and stopped on the following liaison section.
Hayden Paddon became the first New Zealander to win a stage since 1999, after topping the timesheets in SS3. But he lost six minutes after spinning his i20 into a bank at the first corner of the next stage and changing two punctured tyres.
He later spun and damaged his rear suspension in SS7.
Elfyn Evans had a torrid day. He went off the road three times in his Fiesta RS, retiring after the final occasion with a damaged radiator.
Teams will convert their cars from gravel to asphalt specification overnight ahead of Saturday’s second leg, when drivers face six stages covering 159.16km.