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H Paddon Ita15 Fri (Hyundai pic)

PHOTO: Hayden Paddon achieved his best day in WRC by leading Rally Italia Sardegna (Hyundai pic)

HYUNDAI’S Kiwi driver Hayden Paddon surprised the expected pacesetters to lead Rally Italia Sardegna after Friday’s opening leg.

He won three of the four morning rough road gravel speed tests to build an advantage he defended in the afternoon, heading FIA World Championship leader Sébastien Ogier by 8.8sec. Jari-Matti Latvala was 25.8sec behind in third.

Australia’s Scott Pedder finished 22nd in his WRC2 Ford Fiesta R5. The current Australian champion set competitive split times, but broke his suspension on a rock and was forced to retire until Saturday.

Paddon’s low starting position gave him a morning advantage of roads swept clean of loose gravel by those ahead. But he maintained his pace in equal conditions during the morning afternoon and earned the record of being the first New Zealander to lead a WRC round outside his home country.

However, he survived a last-stage scare.

“Something broke on the right rear of the car with half the stage to go. Then in one corner the back of the car went sideways and hit a bank. We decided to take it easy afterwards so we lost a bit of time,” he said.

“It was an amazing day and we have a road position advantage again tomorrow morning, so if we can benefit from that who knows what will happen.”

Road-opener Ogier had the worst of the conditions, sweeping the gravel all morning in his Volkswagen Polo R. However, a clever tyre strategy limited the losses and two stage wins kept him on Paddon’s tail.

Latvala was Paddon’s closest challenger most of the day. He won three stages but an error in the penultimate test when he bounced his Polo R off a chicane and into a bank cost more than 20sec when the impact knocked the rear left tyre off the rim.

Ott Tänak was fourth in a Ford Fiesta RS, the Estonian winning a stage this afternoon after earlier struggling for rhythm. Citroën’s Mads Østberg ended a lacklustre morning in eighth but climbed to fifth in his DS 3.

He headed Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai i20 by 1.3sec, the Belgian losing a minute with a broken turbo pipe this evening. Martin Prokop, who led after last night’s curtain-raising stage in Cagliari, was seventh with Lorenzo Bertelli eighth, both in Fiesta RS cars.

WRC2 leader Paolo Andreucci and Elfyn Evans, who dropped more than three minutes with a broken driveshaft, completed the leaderboard.

The rocky conditions took a heavy toll. Andreas Mikkelsen hit a hole in SS3 and broke his Polo R’s rear right suspension. He made repairs but retired from third on the following liaison section with no fuel pressure.

Kris Meeke rolled his DS 3 in the morning’s opening stage, Robert Kubica crashed his Fiesta RS into a chicane in the next stage and Dani Sordo retired from fourth after an impact ripped the rear left wheel and hub from his i20.

Saturday’s second leg will be the longest WRC day since 2002. After a 6am restart, drivers face nine stages covering 212.83km in a near 17-hour leg.

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.