World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb has started as he means to go on in Rally Bulgaria by clocking up the fastest time for each of the first three stages.
The inaugural rally in Borovetz is new to all the drivers, but it made no difference to Loeb as his Citroen C4 continued its relentless charge towards another title by racking up a 21.3 second lead over nearest rival Dani Sordo.
The Frenchman topped the times on the first Batak Lake stage and followed that up by going quickest on the Belmeken Lake run before also finishing ahead of team-mate Sordo on the second Batak run in SS3.
“You cannot compare it to another tarmac rally because it’s a bit more slippery in places. It’s wide and fast and interesting to drive," said Loeb. "We tried to push hard from the start and I’m very satisfied with the start."
Sébastien Ogier was second behind Loeb until a crash on stage three saw him drop to seventh.
The Citroen Junior team driver misheard a pace note and went straight on a junction 5.1 km from the start of the repeated Batak Lake stage. Although his car sustained a cracked panel, the accident is not thought to have done any lasting damage.
“On the slippery part I had a lot of understeering and it’s not a good feeling to drive when you understeer!" he said. "Seb is very fast. Every time it is a bit more, a bit more. Even if you try to follow him it is very difficult. We have to continue what we’re doing and if we are able to fight with him that’s very good for us.”
Petter Solberg, who won the Shakedown, ended SS3 in third overall, with Kimi Räikkönen in fourth despite a slow start.
The Finn said: “With the first one we were maybe a bit too careful, but we had a lot of sand and mud on the road. We had to start further back so that was the big problem for us but it’s not too bad. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better starting position for us but it’s okay."