Icemen Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen kept their cool in the heat of a thrilling snow battle to throw down the gauntlet to arch-rival Sébastien Loeb during today's opening leg of Rally Norway.  The BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team pair won four ice-bound speed tests in their Focus RS World Rally Car to lead for most of the day, before calmly playing a tactical masterstroke in the final kilometres to gain a better start position tomorrow.

They deliberately slowed near the end of the final special stage to ensure they will restart one place behind Loeb, offering better road conditions and the advantage of being able to track his times.  Hirvonen overnights in second, just 2.6sec behind, with two days of action-packed competition remaining in this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship.  Team-mates and fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila lie third in another Focus RS WRC, 26.2sec from the lead.

The enthralling battle between Hirvonen and Loeb was just reward for the thousands of fans who flocked into the forests near Kongsvinger in bone-numbing cold.  Temperatures nudged -30ºC in the run-up to the rally, and although they eased slightly this morning, thermometers still showed -24ºC as the action began.  The winter wonderland provided perfect conditions, the ice-covered tracks lined by large snow banks which helped keep over-exuberant drivers on the roads.

A short test in Oslo last night preceded the first full day of competition south-east of the rally base in Hamar.  Drivers tackled two loops of four stages covering 113.88km.  Both Focus RS WRCs were equipped with Pirelli's new Sottozero winter tyre.  Produced to a wider specification than normal, each tyre is fitted with almost 400 tungsten-tipped studs to provide remarkable grip on the frozen tracks.

Hirvonen won three of the four morning stages to build a 4.8sec lead.  He added another win on the penultimate test to increase his advantage to 7.3sec.  The 28-year-old was mindful of building a big enough lead to offset the expected disadvantage of being first in the start order tomorrow, sweeping clear loose snow on the surface to offer a cleaner and faster line to rivals behind.

Hirvonen lost 3.4sec of his advantage to Loeb by the midpoint of the final 8.00km test.  Loeb was ahead of Hirvonen in today's start order and when the Frenchman completed the stage, Ford's team management relayed his finishing time to the Focus RS WRC.  Hirvonen made an instant decision to ease his pace over the final kilometres to gain the advantage of running behind his rival tomorrow.

"I knew I would lose time on the stage because it was twisty," explained Hirvonen.  "When we saw how much time we had dropped to Loeb mid-stage, I decided to slow.  My lead would have been so small that it made sense to take the advantage of starting behind him tomorrow.  I can follow his split times and react accordingly.  It won't be easy but I like to be the guy chasing and not being chased.

"It was great fun driving flat out in these conditions and I feel confident.  I need to be more careful with my tyres because I seem to be more aggressive in terms of wear than my rivals.  The heater didn't work in the car and all I had to keep me warm was a small heater attached to my driving boots on the liaison sections.  I feel so cold that all I want now is a hot shower and my bed!" he added.

Latvala was third after the morning loop, but the 23-year-old was not entirely happy with his performance.  "I didn't really find the right feeling so I made the car set-up a little softer during the short service before the afternoon loop," he explained.  "I had a good winter test in December so I didn't want to make big changes, just a few small tweaks."

The changes had an instant effect and Latvala posted two second fastest times to end the day with a comfortable 35.0sec advantage over fourth-placed Dani Sordo.  "My driving was better this afternoon.  When the car came out of the ruts it slid too much so I had some learning to do.  I'm a little disappointed to have dropped time this morning but I'm back in the game tonight.  Tomorrow's stages are much faster and I'm third in the start order, which I think is the best position," added Latvala.  

News from our Rivals

Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) briefly led this morning after winning the third stage but had to follow in Hirvonen's tyre tracks until the final kilometres.  Behind Latvala, Dani Sordo (Citroen) holds fourth, despite minor concerns with his car's handling on the final test this morning.  The returning Petter Solberg (Citroen) lies fifth, after delighting his home fans with victory in the opening stage in Oslo last night.  Per-Gunnar Andersson (Skoda) is just 0.1sec behind, the Swede winning his first WRC stage this afternoon before adding a second success immediately afterwards.  Stobart driver Henning Solberg (Ford) is seventh, despite set-up problems this morning and gearchange difficulties this afternoon.  Stobart team-mates Urmo Aava and Matthew Wilson and Sébastien Ogier (Citroen) enjoyed a thrilling daylong battle which ended when both Aava and Ogier lost time after sliding into a snow bank on the penultimate test, handing Wilson the advantage in eighth.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg is centred north of Hamar, in the mountain region around Lillehammer, host city of the 1994 Winter Olympics.  After re-starting at 06.20, drivers face two identical loops of four stages covering 118.94km before the final overnight halt at 17.44.  Mountain, the opening test of each loop, provides some of the most spectacular scenery of the season, while the last stage runs through parkland in Hamar itself.

Leaderboard after Day 1
1. S Loeb/D Elena (F)                             Citroën C4               1h13m41.7s
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen (FIN)                 Ford Focus RS          +2.6s
3. JM Latvala/M Anttila (FIN)                    Ford Focus RS          +26.2s
4. D Sordo/M Marti (E)                           Citroën C4               +1m08.6s
5. P Solberg/P Mills (N)                           Citroën Xsara           +1m31.5s
6. PG Andersson/A Frederiksson (SWE)     Skoda Fabia WRC     +1m31.6s
7. H Solberg/C Menkerud (N)                   Ford Focus RS           +1m39.4s
8. M Wilson/S Martin (GB)                        Ford Focus RS           +2m0 3.3s
9. S Ogier/J Ingrassia (F)                        Citroën C4               +2m41.2s
10. U Aava/K Sikk (EE)                              Ford Focus RS           +2m41.5s

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