Hirvonen delights home town fans..

with fighting drive in Finland  

BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have been embroiled in a fierce fight for supremacy at the head of the leaderboard in Rally Finland yesterday. 

 The FIA World Rally Championship leaders hold second in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after a captivating duel with arch-rival Sébastien Loeb over the roller-coaster forest roads of central Finland.  The difference between the two drivers after the first of three legs is just 14.4sec.

Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila retired their Focus RS this morning after crashing out of third place on the third stage.  The Finns will return to the action tomorrow under SupeRally rules after the team repaired the car this afternoon.

The rally burst into action last night with a short speed test on the edge of the rally's host city, Jyväskylä.  But the competition began for real this morning when it moved into the dauntingly fast forests west of the city.  Drivers tackled a further 10 stages covering a total of 131.70km, on roads that ranged from tight and narrow sections to fast, wide and hard forest tracks – littered with the stomach-churning jumps for which this rally is so famous.

A heavy shower just before this morning's start was just what Hirvonen wanted.  The rain bound together slippery loose gravel on the road surface which had formed after several days' hot weather, providing the 28-year-old Finn with good conditions.  Showers continued throughout the day, ensuring that start position, which so often proves a handicap to the early starters on dry gravel roads, had less effect than expected.

The day was dominated by the two front-runners, who completed a clean sweep of stage wins.  Hirvonen, who celebrated his 28th birthday yesterday and lives in Jyväskylä, won three tests and was only twice outside the top two times as he fought tooth and nail with his rival.  The pace was so hot on this fastest rally of the year that average speeds topped 126kph this afternoon.

"I enjoyed the fight, especially driving in front my family and friends," said Hirvonen.  "The battle is almost as close as last year when I fought with Marcus Grönholm.  This afternoon, especially, was good.  I drove as hard as I could and made no mistakes.  I'm a little frustrated that I couldn't do any more.  I could have taken risks but that's something I didn't want to do.  Road position wasn't an issue and I didn't let Jari-Matti's retirement affect me.  I just tried to do the best job for myself and Ford.

"Everything is so close between us that I'm not going to take any gambles by changing the settings on the car.  There are many new stages tomorrow so anything can happen on roads that we don't know so well," added Hirvonen.

Latvala held third after this morning's opening stage in his Focus RS but the 23-year-old crashed out about 4km after the start of the next test.  "I approached a left-right-left combination of bends and decided to keep the car as straight as I could," said Latvala.  "But I hit a rock, which wasn't in my pace notes, with the front right of the car.  The handling felt strange immediately afterwards and suddenly I was thrown off the road into the ditch where the car half-rolled and hit a small tree.  The data shows I was doing 117kph when I went off….."

The impact broke the front right steering arm and Latvala retired from the day but will return tomorrow with a 45 minute penalty.  "I just thought this can't be happening to me again.  I felt relaxed this morning and felt really confident in the opening stage and the early part of the next.  I want to continue so that I can get my confidence back," he added.

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 15th in the team's third Focus RS.  "I'm getting the feeling back after the break and I was happy with my times on these rapid stages.  This is a very, very fast rally and on the open sections we gave it everything, but maybe I backed off a little on some of the more aggressive jumps.  Today was about getting to the end and building confidence.  The changing weather meant I had to adapt my driving in some areas.  I tried to go full out on some of the later stages but there were times when I eased off as the road became slippery," said Al Qassimi.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "I'm disappointed with Jari-Matti.  He made a fundamental mistake in making his pace notes by not including the rock he hit.  He put more pressure on Mikko, who has done an exceptional job from first in the start order.  At the start of the day I felt if we could be within 15sec of the lead we would be in a good position tomorrow."

Team Round Up

Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) held the advantage over Hirvonen from the start and claimed 10 stage wins, two shared with the Finn. 

Dani Sordo (Citroen), Urmo Aava (Citroen) and Stobart driver Gigi Galli (Ford) all held third, before Henning Solberg (Ford) completed a remarkable progression from 10th this morning to take third on the penultimate test. 

Galli lies fourth, ahead of Sordo, who spun on stage eight.  Aava went off the road on the following test while Andreas Mikkelsen (Ford), who was also in the fight for third this morning, retired on the penultimate stage.  Per-Gunnar Andersson (Suzuki) spun early in the opening test, dropping nearly 30sec, but recovered to eighth. 

Team-mate Toni Gardemeister is 10th, despite hurting his right shoulder after going off the road in stage seven.