The first day of this weekend's Rally Ireland, the opening round of the 2009 World Rally Championship, started in torrential rain and saw a cautious start from Loeb/Elena and Sordo/Marti who gradually upped their pace as the day progressed and finished the day first and second places on the evening's leaderboard.
The three stages – Glenboy, Cavan and Aughnasheelan – were located to the east of Sligo and featured typical Irish lanes which were not only extremely fast, bumpy and narrow, but also covered in ageing asphalt which offered varying levels of grip...
The big differences in times noted at the end of SS1 were due to the different tyre choices being run. Both Citroen Total World Rally Team crews opted for the Pirelli PZero asphalt tyre and dropped a sizable chunk of time compared with those rivals who had chosen the Pirelli Sottozero snow tyre.
"It's something of a surprise to see a snow tyre outperform an asphalt tyre in the wet," observed Sébastien Loeb. "It didn't take me long to realise that I wouldn't be able to push as hard as I would have liked. It was dark, and I had trouble picking out the many places where there was running water on the road. We were aquaplaning all the time, even at low speeds. I didn't want to risk going off on the very first stage of the championship, so I decided to bide my time."
Competitors benefitted from better grip on SS2 and SS3, and both Loeb and Sordo were able to push harder. The five-time World Champion posted the fastest time on each of these tests and returned to the service park in Sligo in second place, 6.7 seconds behind the early leader, Urmo Aava.
Dani Sordo followed in fourth place: "It was crazy out there! The car did practically what it liked in those places where there was the most flooding. I lost a few seconds when I stalled in a hairpin on SS3 but I'm just glad we're still in the event..."
Following the 30-minute lunchtime service halt, crews returned to tackle the same three stages and, this time, all the cars had switched to the Pirelli Sottozero, and were carrying two sparesContinuing on his momentum of the morning, Sébastien Loeb put in a perfect run to claim three further fastest times. Dani Sordo followed his team-mate home in second position on all three tests, climbing in the process to second place overall to round off an excellent team display for Citroen.
On their return to service for the second time, competitors learnt that the day's last two stages (Murley and Fardross) had been cancelled and that there would be no further competitive action today.
"I felt a lot more confident with Sottozero tyres on my C4 WRC," reported Loeb. "Its handling was much more progressive and I was able to run at the pace I wanted to. But even though I'm leading this evening, and despite the cushion we have over the car in third place, I prefer to continue to drive cautiously because I can't afford to make any mistakes."
"Cancelling the last two stages was probably the right thing to do, but l wouldn't have minded contesting them. I think it's especially hard on the spectators who turned out to watch us," he added.
"I enjoyed myself this afternoon," said Sordo. "My car was easier to drive and I had a good feeling. I'm glad we succeeded in passing Urmo Aava and Mikko Hirvonen. Citroen is first and second this evening, which is a great result, and we will need to keep that up tomorrow and on Sunday."
"We didn't get off to the best of starts," concluded Citroen Sport Director Olivier Quesnel. "This morning we quite simply made a mistake with our tyre choice. The first stage was tough, but then Sébastien pulled up his sleeves and immediately got back into the swing. This afternoon, with everybody on a level playing field, he demonstrated that he is more than ever the man to beat in the WRC."
"Dani fulfilled his mission to the letter and the fact that we are provisionally first and second speaks volumes for the competitiveness of the C4 WRC," Quesnel stated. "It seems as though we have started 2009 as we left off in 2008..."