Ford’s Jari-Matti Latvala held a 12.9-second lead at the end of an action-packed opening day of the Wales Rally GB, as hail, sleet, ice and torrential rain caused major problems for the World Rally Championship fraternity.
The Finn took the lead on stage six – on a day when stages one and four, both run through Hafren, were cancelled due to icy conditions – to open up a healthy lead over world champion Sebastian Loeb and Suzuki’s Per-Gunnar Andersson.
Today’s major surprise came in the form of Junior World Rally champion Sebastien Ogier, who held the lead for most of the day on his full senior debut, before a gearbox problem on his Citroen C4 dropped him down the order.
The Frenchman’s misfortune played into Latvala’s hands as the Blue Oval driver’s fastest time on the second run through Myherin leapfrogged him into the lead, despite having to cope with a heavily misted windscreen, a problem which affected several competitors due to the combination of hot cars and the freezing temperatures.
Latvala, who took his maiden victory on the Rally of Sweden earlier this year then extended the gap by a further 2.4 seconds on stage seven.
Citroen driver Loeb lies in a solid second place at the season finale having kept his nose clean through the challenging conditions, and is well placed to take his maiden victory in Wales.
However, while Latvala and Loeb made serene progress at the head of the field, several of their regular rivals failed to cope with the elements.
Latvala’s team-mate, and last year’s Rally GB winner, Mikko Hirvonen is down in 28th place after rolling his Ford Focus on stage five, while fellow Ford driver Francois Duval suffered a spin on stage six and Subaru’s Chris Atkinson binned his Impreza just 180 metres into stage seven.
Atkinson’s accident was by far the most serious of the three and saw the Australian hospitalised.
A Subaru spokesman said: “He is out of the car and has been taken away by ambulance, Chris was airlifted to hospital after receiving a knock on the head, so he has been taken in for observation.”
Two more drivers were also injured in a crash on the opening day.
Turkish competitors Koray Muratoglu and Caglar Suren were taken to hospital after their Ford Fiesta collided with another vehicle during a non-competitive section of the rally.
The men, who were travelling between two stages of the event, remained conscious after the accident off the A44 near Devil’s Bridge, Aberystwyth, a Wales Rally GB spokesman said.
Suren, the co-driver, was airlifted to the Princess Royal Hospital, Shrewsbury, while the driver, Muratoglu, was taken to Bronglais Hospital, Aberystwyth, by ambulance.
Elsewhere, MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi finished the opening day in 27th place having produced some impressive times after a tentative start.