Conditions for the first leg of Rally de Espana were unexpectedly wet, after rain fell overnight and throughout the morning. Despite being handicapped by running late in the starting order, Mikko Hirvonen and Sébastien Loeb managed to end the morning in third and fourth positions overall.
Confounding earlier, rather optimistic forecasts, the weather caused many a headache when it came to choosing tyres for the morning. The Citroën crews opted for soft Michelin Latitude Cross tyres, which proved to be the best option for the conditions encountered on the three stages.
Starting from 12th and 14th positions respectively, Mikko Hirvonen and Sébastien Loeb had to contend with a racing line already rutted and covered in mud. After finishing second and third on the short first stage, Seb and Mikko had no answer to the pace of Østberg and Tänak on SS2. “The rain starting falling much more heavily when we were on the stage and there was a lot of standing water on the road, so we had to be cautious,” recounted Mikko, who finished 17.5s behind the leaders.
Meanwhile, Seb lost a hefty 25.5s on SS2: “Our starting position would have been perfect in dry conditions. When it’s like this, however, you just cannot push, or if you do, you’re punished straight away. Fortunately, the cars that had stopped by the side of the road gave us a clue about the trickiest sections!”
This second stage saw the notable retirements of Petter Solberg and Thierry Neuville. The Citroën Junior World Rally Team driver stopped after severely damaging one the wheels when he hit a rock. He will undoubtedly rejoin the rally under Rally2 rules tomorrow.
After setting the top two times on SS3, a 44km-long stage, Sébastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen cut the gap slightly to the leaders. Mikko is now third, 13.1s behind Østberg. Meanwhile, Seb is 19.5s adrift: “I hope we’ll all have the same conditions for the second run. If I lose as much time this afternoon, I think it will be difficult to close the gap, even with the two remaining legs on tarmac.”
After a 30-minute service period, the crews will contest the loop’s three stages for a second time. The day is scheduled to conclude with a short stage along the seafront at Salou.