Sebastien Loeb stormed into the Rally New Zealand lead at the end of day one following a battle with Citroen teammate Mikko Hirvonen, while another mistake for Jari-Matti Latvala dropped Ford's team leader out of contention.
Latvala had already been losing ground to the two leading Citroens even before an error on stage seven, Te Akau South. The Finn had been trying to save tire life on the first two stages of the loop before charging on the two longer Te Akau stages that rounded off leg one, but he only got halfway through the first of them before going off the road after misjudging a cut in a muddy section. Latvala's Ford became stuck in a fence and needed assistance from spectators to get going on, eventually losing over four minutes and falling to ninth.
Loeb was the pacesetter for most of the afternoon, closing to within 1.5sec of Hirvonen as he delivered a third consecutive stage win on the loop's Te Hutewai opener. Hirvonen then responded with a blistering time through Whaanga Coast, where – just as had been the case in the morning – Loeb was left perplexed by his teammate's speed and could only watch in amazement as the lead jumped up to 7.6sec again.
But that proved to be a brief flurry for Hirvonen. With tire wear a major issue, Loeb changed to two hard tires on the front of his Citroen while Hirvonen tried to get to the end of the loop on four worn softs. Although Loeb's soft/hard mixture caused some balance worries, it proved a better bet than Hirvonen's strategy, and by the end of Te Akau North, Loeb had established a four-second rally lead.
After languishing in seventh in the morning due to a disastrous choice of hard tires, Ford's Petter Solberg joined the other front-runners on softs at the start of the afternoon and flew. The Norwegian is back up to fourth and has closed to within 8.3sec of third-placed Evgeny Novikov (M-Sport Ford).
Novikov's teammate Ott Tanak holds fifth, ahead of Qatar Citroen's Thierry Neuville, and the Minis of Dani Sordo (Prodrive) and Armindo Araujo (Motorsport Italia).
In his first World Rally Championship appearance since Rally GB 2007, Manfred Stohl was running 10th in the Brazil Ford he usually fields for Daniel Oliveira, until a suspected broken driveshaft dropped him behind Ken Block's Monster Ford.
Leading positions after SS8:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 2h07m35.0s
2. Mikko Hirvonen Citroen + 4.0s
3. Evgeny Novikov M-Sport Ford + 1m31.0s
4. Petter Solberg Ford + 1m39.3s
5. Ott Tanak Stobart Ford + 1m47.0s
6. Thierry Neuville Qatar Citroen + 2m18.0s
7. Dani Sordo Prodrive Mini + 2m34.3s
8. Armindo Araujo Portugal Mini + 4m36.9s
9. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 4m56.1s
10. Ken Block Monster Ford + 6m25.3s