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BP-Ford World Rally Team holds second and third positions after today's sun-kissed opening leg of Rally d'Italia Sardegna.  Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen are second in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car after leading for most of the afternoon before a broken shock absorber cost 30 seconds and the overnight lead.  Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen charged up the leaderboard this afternoon to claim third in another Focus RS.

Grönholm outpaced Sébastien Loeb, his main rival in the fight for the drivers' crown in the FIA World Rally Championship, until the Finn was forced to drive the final 20.36km speed test with a damaged front left shock absorber after hitting a rock 5km from the end of the previous special stage.  However, on a rally renown for its rough roads, both drivers are in a strong position tonight.

Sardinia's exclusive Costa Smeralda holiday resort of Porto Cervo provided a spectacular backdrop for last night's start ceremony ahead of this seventh round of the series.  Attention switched to the rally base in Olbia this morning as the event began in earnest.  Drivers tackled two identical loops of three gravel speed tests covering 145.40km south-west of the town in the Nuoro region.  The tracks were narrow and while a thick layer of sandy gravel lay on the surface this morning, that was swept away to leave cleaner but rockier roads this afternoon.

Grönholm and Hirvonen were second and third respectively in the start order.  They had the worst of the gravely conditions, sweeping the stones clear to leave a cleaner passage for those behind.  Both opted for hand-carved cuts in their medium compound BFGoodrich tyres this morning to help cut through the loose stones in search of better grip beneath.  As ground temperatures climbed to 32°C in the sun this afternoon, both opted for hard compound rubber with no cuts.

Grönholm, second in the drivers' championship, made a strong start by setting second fastest time on two of the morning stages to return to service in second, just 1.5sec behind surprise leader Jari-Matti Latvala.  "I didn't expect to see Jari-Matti there but he had a good start position and drove well," said the 39-year-old Finn.  "There was a lot of loose gravel which we cleared for those behind." 

He was fastest on the opening afternoon test to hit the front before the fluid in the shock absorber drained away on the next test.  He retained the lead but was unable to make repairs and then dropped 25sec in the final stage.  "I can't believe it because I was leading and now I'm more than 20sec behind.  I'll try to catch Loeb but it will be hard.  It's a lot of time but there are two days remaining and anything is possible.  It's sad because the car was working so well.  The car was difficult to drive after the damper broke but luckily we made it back to service with no more problems," he added.

Hirvonen ended the opening loop in seventh, but the 26-year-old Finn knew his position was a result of the conditions and was far from down-hearted.  "It was a fantastic morning," he said.  "I think I should have had more cuts in my tyres because there was more loose gravel than I thought.  I had soft springs to ensure the best traction but as the roads were cleaner this afternoon I made them stiffer." 

Hirvonen then set two top three times to climb to third, 6.7sec behind Grönholm and 29.1sec behind Loeb.  "It has been a really enjoyable day and I'm happy with my position," he said.  "It has been a long time since I enjoyed a rally as much as I have today.  I had more traction this afternoon because the roads were cleaner but it was hard on the cars with big rocks and stones sticking out of the ground.  We hit a few but I was pushing hard and the Focus is a strong car so we were OK.  My times are closer to Seb and Marcus here than in Argentina so I feel I'm back on track."

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said he was 'disappointed and pleased at the same time' with today.  "It's not over yet and we will come back and challenge tomorrow.  Marcus had a big impact on the front left wheel and lost the fluid from the damper but I'm pleased that he got back to service and didn't lose as much time as we feared," he said.

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Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) took advantage of a lower start position to lead during the morning loop.  He dropped to second behind Grönholm before hitting a rock early in the fifth stage and breaking the front left suspension.  He was forced to retire.  Grönholm's problem allowed Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) to take the lead on the final stage.  The Frenchman was first in the start order this morning and dropped time in the loose gravel.  He was fifth after the opening loop but climbed the order on the cleaner afternoon roads.  Henning Solberg (Ford) stalled his engine twice on the first stage but was fastest on the third to climb to fourth and held his position to the end of the leg.  Dani Sordo (Citroen) had no problems but was down in ninth after the morning but the Spaniard climbed to fifth this afternoon.  Petter Solberg (Subaru) was third after the opening loop but rear brake problems dropped him to sixth.  Daniel Carlsson (Citroen) was the first major retirement.  The Swede crossed the start podium last night but failed to restart this morning for personal reasons.  Chris Atkinson (Subaru) had set up problems before hitting rocks on the penultimate stage and going off into a ditch.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg offers another tough challenge.  After leaving Olbia at 08.00, drivers face two identical loops of three stages in the Gallura region, close to today's action but further inland.  The day includes the famous 'camel jumps' on the Monte Lerno stage, the middle test of each loop.  They return to Olbia for the final overnight halt at 18.45 after 142.72km of competition.

Positions after Leg 1 

Pos  Driver         Make       Time
1. Loeb Citroen 1h42:10.0
2. Gronholm Ford + 22.4
3. Hirvonen Ford + 29.1
4. Solberg Ford + 32.9
5. Sordo Citroen + 01:18.3
6. Solberg Subaru + 01:21.0
7. Gardemeister Mitsubishi + 02:04.2
8. Stohl Citroen + 02:35.8
9. Wilson Ford + 03:34.9
10. Mac Hale Ford + 04:38.3

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