Defending champion and top seed Jeff Judd of Christchurch made the early running as the first North Island-based edition of the epay Silver Fern Rally raced through the Bay of Plenty yesterday.
The 48 crews started from Auckland's Botany Town Centre on Sunday morning and completed five stages near Mercer, the Maramarua Forest, Kaihere and Richmond Downs before stopping at Mt Maunganui's Baypark Speedway for an early afternoon service halt.
The week-long marathon with 43 special stages - totalling just over 1000km - is primarily for classic and historic rally cars.
The rally may be a marathon but the margins were those of a sprint event.
Judd, the 2010 Silver Fern winner and British visitor Vince Bristow - both driving Ford Escort RS1800s - were tied in the lead at Baypark. Former New Zealand champion Neil Allport had moved up from 10th seeding to third in his Ford Escort RS1600 ahead of double Australian rally champ Geoff Portman (Escort RS1800) and the top four were separated by just 10s.
In the three afternoon stages Judd's run at the front of field was unaffected by dust and he arrived in Rotorua late in the afternoon with a leading margin over 32s over fellow Christchurch driver Deane Buist (Ford Escort RS1800). Allport was third and only 1s behind Buist.
"I've a great day," said Judd. "It's early days with a long way to go. Everyone is still settling into the rally but I wanted to go hard in the two Maramarua stages because I knew the roads from a rally about a month ago."
Bristow's challenge was slowed in the afternoon by a spin in the Taumata Rd stage and then a gearbox issue.
"Hopefully we can find third gear again tonight [at the Rotorua service]. It's still in there somewhere but it's hiding from me at the moment."
Bristow was 2s behind Allport in fourth place overnight and 1s ahead of Portman.
"It's been a brilliant day. The pace is a bit quicker than I expected in these early stages," said Portman.
"I think people are feeling confident in these shorter 10km stages and we're all seeing how quickly each other can go."
With day one completed the leading 15 cars in the Historic Rally were Ford Escort RS1600 and R1800 models. California's Rhys Millen had been running in the top 10 earlier in the day but a blown diff in his Group B Mazda RX7 had to be changed on the roadside after the Taumata Rd stage and he collected 2m 10s of penalties for late arrival at the last stage which dropped him to 18th position.
In the companion Silver Fern Challenge for more highly modified and modern 2WD rally cars the overnight leader was Aucklander Dave Strong (Honda Civic) by 8s from Cambridge driver Brent Taylor in a Toyota Corolla and Canterbury's Brian Stokes was 16s back in third.
The Silver Fern Rally resumes in Rotorua this morning with three stages near Manawahe and Rotoehu before heading for Opotiki and the Motu Rd stage this afternoon. Leg two finishes in Gisborne this evening with five more days of driving before the rally finishes in Hamilton on Saturday.