Jari-Matti Latvala completed the first day of the Rally Australia just 2.2sec ahead of a flying Sebastien Ogier, but with a comfortable gap back to the title contenders.
Latvala and Ogier benefited from better road conditions than the likes of Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb – who were first onto the extremely dusty roads today – and chose to push flat-out at the front and build a lead rather than back off and down drop the order in a bid for a better road position tomorrow.
Although Ford driver Latvala edged away from Citroen Junior's Ogier on this afternoon's full-length gravel stages, the young Frenchman struck back on the two runs through the asphalt Tweed superspecial that ended the leg, clipping 5.2s from his rival's lead around the Murwillumbah streets having based his tire strategy around these stages.
"It's been a good day," said Ogier, who is enjoying his best start to a rally since leading on his World Rally Car debut in Britain last winter. "I could have been quicker [on gravel] because we chose to start with old tires on the back for the superspecial."
Latvala said he was quite happy with Ford's plan of letting him pull away at the front and try to build a lead before running first on the road on Saturday.
"I'm quite satisfied with today," he said. "For sure I want to help Mikko, but of course I enjoy the fact that it's been going quite well today. I didn't want to play tactics. It's important now that we are first on the road and Mikko has a better position for tomorrow."
Hirvonen will start leg two in fifth place but third on the road. He was passed by both works Citroens on the superspecials, where he confessed to being "terrible" on Thursday, but the running order for Saturday had been decided by positions at the end of the last normal stage. However having feared he might lose a huge amount of time today, he will be relieved to be just 0.9sec behind title rival Loeb, who has struggled so far on this event.
"I'm doing my best," said the World Champion prior to the superspecials. "I was slower than Mikko all afternoon. We'll have to see tomorrow. I didn't have any grip at all today, which might have been due to the setup. Also we had old tires on the rear ready for the super-stage, and that might have cost us on these stages."
Loeb's teammate Dani Sordo had deliberated slowed on SS13 to fall behind Hirvonen in the Saturday running order, before also repassing the Ford on the Tweed stages, although he lost a place to Loeb at the same time, albeit by a tiny 0.1sec. The closely matched Loeb, Sordo and Hirvonen pack is now 22.7sec behind rally leader Latvala.
Behind the top five, Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson have established themselves in comfortable sixth and seventh places, and Munchi's Ford's Federico Villagra has pulled away from Conrad Rautenbach (Citroen Junior) in their battle over eighth.
An eventful opening day in the Production class saw Armindo Araujo lead until damaging his exhaust, then Martin Prokop and Bernardo Sousa both hit the front briefly before being delayed by the same rock on the Kidney Health stage.
That put New Zealander Richard Mason into the lead in 10th place overall. The Subaru driver is 15s clear of a huge battle for second in which the recovering Prokop, Sousa and local driver Cody Crocker are covered by just 0.2sec.
Leading positions after day one:
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford 53m21.4s
2. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 2.2s
3. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 22.7s
4. Dani Sordo Citroen + 22.8s
5. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 23.6s
6. Henning Solberg Ford + 51.3s
7. Matthew Wilson Ford +1m42.4s
8. Federico Villagra Ford +2m04.6s
9. Conrad Rautenbach Citroen +2m27.5s
10. Richard Mason Subaru +4m16.3s