The pace of World Rally Championship driver Hayden Paddon has made no contest of the opening day of the Tauranga-based Rally New Zealand.
Saturday's route took the rally crews across to the Raglan Coast where Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were clear winners on each of the six special stages in their Hyundai i20 AP4 car.
The unbeaten run puts Paddon almost five minutes clear of his nearest challenger after 145km of competition as teams prepare for the second day of rallying on Bay of Plenty roads.
Thick dust in some sections and extreme tyre wear on the dry and abrasive roads also created problems for a number of leading contenders.
Times were slow in the deep gravel of the morning loop but in the afternoon Paddon was able to better the stage records for New Zealand drivers he'd set in the 2012 Rally of New Zealand when he was driving a Skoda Fabia Super 2000 car.
Overall, it's been fast and trouble-free first day run for Paddon and Kennard.
"There was a lot of gravel in the morning and the second pass was a complete contrast, almost like tarmac in places," said Paddon.
"We took the hard compound tyre on the second pass and softs on the first and it all worked well. The tyres are wearing a lot but if you manage it, it's not so bad."
He said the Hyundai NZ team had made significant improvements to the i20 AP4 since its last rally outing at Coromandel in August.
"The car is night and day better. There are still some things to improve but the car is driveable and you can have confidence in it. The work the team has done over the last two months has been worthwhile," said Paddon.
Paddon plans to continue his pace when the second day of the rally moves onto Bay of Plenty roads.
"We'll keep doing the same thing. We're enjoying it and not taking risks. We are at nice comfortable speed, having fun and going sideways," Paddon said.
"Most of tomorrow's stages are new to me so it will be interesting to see how it goes."
Behind the rally leader Auckland driver Andrew Hawkeswood (Mazda2 AP4) is running in second spot and has moved one step closer to clinching the 2017 NZ Rally Championship today.
Hawkeswood completed the day in second place while his nearest championship rival Ben Hunt (Subaru) experienced several delays including brake problems and time-consuming punctures to finish the day in 23rd place.
"It's been a tough day. The heat and dust has taken their toll but it's been good," said Hawkeswood.
Avoiding the tyre wear issues that slowed many of the national championship crews played a key part in Hawkeswood's run.
"The Pirellis were great. We made the right choices where we had too and that's where we picked up some time."
By taking third place today Rangiora's Matt Summerfield (Subaru) becomes Hawkeswood's main title threat. Summerfield put in a late charge to move ahead of Christchurch driver Josh Marston (Holden Barina AP4) in today's final stage and came up 15secs short of catching Hawkeswood.
Marston completed the stages in fourth place ahead of Te Aroha's Graham Featherstone (Mitsubishi) and 2016 national champion David Holder (Holden Barina AP4) completing the top-six. Marston then encountered a mechanical problem on the touring stage back to Mt Maunganui and retired from the event.
The provisional leg one bonus and Power Stage points earned from today's rallying has edged Hawkeswood out to a lead of 14 points over Summerfield with the title set to be decided on Sunday.
Opening day casualties included the new Ford Fiesta R5 of Hawke's Bay driver Max Bayley who ran into a ditch on the opening stage while early second place runner Sloan Cox (Rotorua) was side-lined with gearbox trouble.
The rally restarts from ASB Baypark Stadium at 8.20am on Sunday and competitors will race through six more stages to complete the rally.
Sunday's route comprises two loops of three stages — the 24.45km Manawahe Rd stage near Lake Rotoma, a 5.62km spectator stage at the TECT All Terrain Park and the 10.56km Mangatoi Rd/Mountain Rd stage that finishes near Oropi.
There's a mid-day return to the Baypark service park with the first car due at 11.59am and the rally finish at Baypark is scheduled at 4.08pm.
■ 2017 Rally New Zealand — results after leg one:
1 Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai i20 AP4) 1h 38m 54.0s
2 Andrew Hawkeswood/Jeff Cress (Mazda2 AP4) +4m 58.0s 3 Matt and Nicole Summerfield (Subaru Impreza STI) + 5m 13.6s 4 Josh Marston/Andrew Graves (Holden Barina AP4) + 5m 43.0s 5 Graham Featherstone/Dave Devonport (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7) + 5m 53.5s 6 David Holder/Jason Farmer (Holden Barina AP4) +7m 13.6s