Hirvonen and Latvala provide Ford

 with perfect start in Japan

BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team hit top form on the vastly shortened opening leg of Rally Japan to hold first and second places tonight.  Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen dominated in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to lead from the opening speed test in this 14th and penultimate round of the FIA World Rally Championship.  They built a 26.2 second advantage over team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila. 

This shortest leg of the three-day event was truncated as a result of bad weather and a serious accident.  Snow earlier in the week damaged the roads in the longest special stage and organisers scrapped both passes over the test for safety reasons.  An accident this afternoon halted that stage and the resulting delay meant another test was cancelled to put the rally back on schedule.  Drivers tackled just 57.40km of the scheduled 90.48km.

The rally is based in Sapporo, the largest city on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, for the first time after moving west from the previous host town of Obihiro.  The bulk of today's tests were to the north-east over twisty and muddy gravel forest tracks, often tree-lined and with large drainage ditches alongside.  The leg ended with two passes over a super special stage inside the ultra-modern Sapporo Dome, a baseball stadium and host to soccer's World Cup in 2002.

Hirvonen was fastest over two of the morning's three stages to open a 6.9sec lead over Latvala by the time the cars returned to Sapporo for service.  He was quickest through both afternoon tests over the same roads, before winning both passes over the Dome test, for a tally of six wins from seven stages.

"Today was soft, narrow and twisty but everything felt good so I pushed hard all day," said 28-year-old Hirvonen.  "It was cold and muddy in the opening stage this morning, so cold that I never really got any heat into the tyres, although the grip was still consistently good.  I didn't expect so much snow there and in some places when I cut a corner, it came over the car.  This afternoon the roads were really rutted but I expected them to be worse.  It was difficult to drive because the ruts were so deep.  But I had a clear run and everything went smoothly.

"Tomorrow's stages are wider and faster.  There was a lot of loose gravel on the surface during the recce so I hope it continues to rain tonight to dampen everything down because first in the start order won't be the best place to be otherwise.  The stages will require a different rhythm from today and I hope I can find that immediately," added Hirvonen.

Latvala struggled to find a good feeling initially.  "My position is good but it was an up and down day," said the 23-year-old Finn.  "I made no big mistakes but I wasn't totally satisfied with my driving.

I couldn't find a rhythm in the first two stages this morning.  I pushed too hard and the car was going too wide into corners.  I changed the differential programme for the final stage and that really helped. 

"The conditions were challenging, both inside and outside.  There was so much rain outside tonight that when we entered the stage inside the Dome, the concrete was soaked.  It was like driving on ice and I had to be so careful," added Latvala.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on 'a perfect day' for the team.  "We had no issues with the cars on what was one of the most challenging days' driving of the season.  The drivers had wet, dry and snow to contend with and both dealt with the conditions in a highly mature fashion," he said.

Team Round Up

Behind Hirvonen and Latvala, Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) held third, the Frenchman driving cautiously in his quest for a fifth world title.  Chris Atkinson (Subaru) made a steady start but climbed from ninth to fourth, overhauling team-mate Petter Solberg on the final stage.  Stobart driver Matthew Wilson (Ford) rounded off the top six.  Team-mate François Duval (Ford) climbed to second, ahead of Latvala, on stage five but retired on the following test after crashing heavily into a steel post supporting a roadside barrier.  The Belgian was uninjured but co-driver Patrick Pivato was airlifted to hospital with a broken pelvis and a fractured tibia and is undergoing surgery this evening.  Dani Sordo (Citroen) retired from fifth on stage six with engine problems while Conrad Rautenbach (Citroen) went out after sliding off the road on the opening test.

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