Ott Tänak leads Rally New Zealand after Thursday night’s superspecial stage, as World Rally Championship title rival Kalle Rovanperä made a small mistake.
Pukekawa Auckland Domain kickstarted the first Rally New Zealand to be part of the World Rally Championship since 2012. An asphalt stage that was effectively two laps around a park, Auckland Domain, it was a treacherous start as rain before the stage made the surface slippery.
But with the sun beating down on the asphalt as the Rally1 cars each took to the stage, the road began to dry and the times soon tumbled.
Craig Breen, fourth of the nine works drivers onto the stage, set a strong pace that stood as the benchmark for a good while until 2019 world champion Tänak came through.
“We’ll see what we can do,” he said. “These donuts were like a clown show, wheels are spinning with no idea where the road is going – not so funny actually.”
But what about the potential of causing a title upset against Rovanperä?
“It’s not in our hands, it’s nothing to do with us.”
Rovanperä had a messy start to his Rally New Zealand though, briefly powering away from the first of three donuts on the spectator stage before realizing he had another to do, and having to track back.
The error cost him 2.6 seconds to Tänak and dumped him to sixth place overnight.
“A bit of a s*** run through for me, but nice to see all the people there,” admitted Rovanperä.
“Of course, there’s always pressure there, but hopefully this weekend we can try and do a good job. It will be a difficult one opening the road, but we’ll try our best.”
Breen was the only driver to come within a second of Tänak, lying 0.9s adrift, with Thierry Neuville third – a further 0.7s adrift.
Takamoto Katsuta was fourth fastest and quickest of Toyota’s quartet, 0.4s off Neuville but 0.2s up on Elfyn Evans.
Rovanperä edged M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith by 0.3s while the returning Sébastien Ogier and Oliver Solberg shared the eighth fastest time – hampered by being the first two Rally1 cars onto the stage.
M-Sport privateer Lorenzo Bertelli made the same mistake as Rovanperä did on one of his donuts, and therefore finds himself behind several Rally2 cars after SS1.
It was an awkward start to the rally for Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who’s made the trip to New Zealand as part of his strategy to win this year’s WRC title.
The three-time European champion was brilliant on the first of three mandatory donuts on the spectator stage, but lost the rear when he approached the second as his Škoda lost a front driveshaft.
“Yeah we have some trouble,” said Kajetanowicz. “Now we go to the service, we see tomorrow. This is how it is.”
Hayden Paddon, as he’s expected to be all weekend, was quickest of the WRC2 runners in his Hyundai i20 N Rally2.
Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen was just 1.8s slower though.