Mikko Hirvonen's decision to be first on the road after qualifying for the Brother Rally New Zealand almost paid off.
He held the lead for the majority of yesterday but was usurped by eight-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, who managed to post a faster time on the last stage of the day. The Frenchman moved four seconds ahead of the chasing pack and at the close of play was leading Hirvonen and Evgeny Novikov.
"It was not an easy day but we are leading at the moment," said Loeb. "We had the right tyres to attack when we did so no problem there but I do not have many soft tyres left for the rest of the race."
Hirvonen's rear tyres were exhausted and of no use during the last stage, allowing Loeb to erase the four-second buffer Hirvonen had after seven stages. With two days of rallying to go, Hirvonen isn't too concerned.
"We had a really awesome fight with Sebastien," said Hirvonen. "I'm a bit disappointed with the last stage but it's only four seconds and I feel really confident and hopefully we can continue the fight."
The real news of the day was Jari-Matti Latvala's mistake towards the end of stage seven when he shot off the road and entangled himself in a fence. Latvala was fastest through the stage until his mishap, which required the help of a spectator to untangle the car so he could finish.
He lost just over four minutes on the leaders, which dropped him all the way to ninth place from a day-high third.
"I struggled all day with the car and I didn't think I made a mistake. It was almost like I got sucked into the corner and off the road," said Latvala. "The car got tangled in the fence wire and we had to wait for a farmer to come with side-cutters."
Petter Solberg's day got off to a bad start after the team chose the wrong tyres (hard) and struggled all morning, having to settle for seventh at the service break.
Things looked up over the afternoon's stages and Solberg, now on soft tyres, slowly marched his way up the table to finish the day fourth.
"It was a very tough morning, I must say," said Solberg. "But we got our rhythm in the afternoon and started to chase the leaders. I hope day two is raining and we can use our soft tyres."
The S2000 category was a war of attrition with New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon the last man standing at the end of the day. Due to a combination of mechanical failures, off-road exertions and the like, the Kiwi's four challengers in the class all failed to finish day one.
Paddon didn't have an incident-free run either. Gearbox problems surfaced towards the end of the day, and he had no clutch.
"We started steady as it was going to be a long day," said Paddon. "When we went to raise the game on SS3 all our class competition turned to lemmings. We'll change the gearbox overnight and show what we can do on day two."
Richard Mason leads the charge for domestic honours from Emma Gilmore and Matt Jansen. Day two's stages are south of Whangarei with the first stage at Batley near Kaiwaka.