Following a ceremonial start in front of Auckland’s War Memorial Museum hosted by Mayor Phil Goff and Minister of Agriculture Damian O’Connor, which featured a stirring Pōwhiri - a Māori welcoming ceremony – Ott Tänak edged M-Sport Ford star Craig Breen to win Thursday night’s opening speed test at Repco Rally New Zealand.
The Estonian - driving a Hyundai i20 N - pipped his Puma rival by just nine-tenths of a second through the 1.78km all-asphalt blast at Pukekawa Domain.
Tänak’s colleague Thierry Neuville was a further seven-tenths behind after a spectacular opener which welcomed the FIA World Rally Championship back to New Zealand following a 10-year hiatus.
With cars running in gravel trim, damp conditions and shiny tar hampered the early runners. But Tänak, running 15th on the road, made the most of his superior traction as the surface gradually dried up.
Fast sections intertwined tight and technical donuts and, while the Estonian driver admitted he wasn’t too keen on the stage, there were no dramas to report.
"We will see what we can do,” said Tänak. “My head was spinning in here and I had no idea where the road was going - it was not so fun, actually!
A strong result for Tänak at this 11th round would take the title fight to the next round in Spain - although he insisted he was not thinking about the scrap with points leader Kalle Rovanperä.
“It’s not in our hands,” he proclaimed. “It’s nothing to do with us.”
GR Yaris cars accounted for the remainder of the top six with fourth-placed Takamoto Katsuta leading the Toyota charge 2.0sec off the pace. Elfyn Evans was another 0.2sec in arrears but held four-tenths in hand over Rovanperä, who had a sloppy run after misjudging the first donut.
"It was a bad run through for me, but it was nice to see all the people here,” Rovanperä explained. “Of course, the pressure is always there, but hopefully this weekend we can try to do a good job."
A flamboyant run secured seventh for Puma youngster Gus Greensmith, while Sébastien Ogier, Oliver Solberg and WRC2 leader Hayden Paddon completed the leaderboard.
The going gets tougher on Friday with six classic stages on the Whaanga Coast and Waikato region roads near Te Akau. They create a hugely challenging opening leg that comprises more than half the rally’s competitive distance.
To make life even more difficult for competitors, there will be no opportunity for service. Just a tyre change in Raglan splits the two loops of Whaanga Coast (29.27km), Te Akau South (31.02km) and Te Akau North (18.53km) during a relentless 15-hour day.
Image: Repco Rally New Zealand - Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja, Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT (photo: Jaanus Ree / Red Bull Content Pool)