BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team enjoyed a solid start to Rally de España to hold third and fourth places following today's opening leg.  François Duval and Patrick Pivato, returning to the official Ford line-up for the first time since 2004, lie third in a Focus RS World Rally Car, just 2.8sec ahead of team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.  The equally-matched Ford duo traded places throughout the day and tonight's gap is the widest it has been all day.

Late summer holidaymakers and locals alike packed the seafront in the bustling Costa Daurada resort of Salou, south of Barcelona, last night for the start ceremony of this 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship.  The action began in earnest this morning as competitors tackled two identical loops of three flowing asphalt speed tests covering 131.76km in the Tarragona region.

Glorious sunshine bathed the hills north of Salou.  While temperatures reached 19ºC on the coast, they were a chilly 8ºC when the opening special stage blasted into action this morning, and drivers initially found it hard to generate heat in their hard compound Pirelli tyres.  Combined with dirt dragged onto the roads by drivers cutting corners to shave tenths of a second from their times, the smooth asphalt, likened to a race circuit in its characteristics, was slippery as grip was often hard to find.

Duval and Hirvonen swapped places on each test during the morning loop, the 27-year-old Belgian returning to the Salou service park just 2.2sec ahead of Hirvonen.  While Duval was happy with his progress, 28-year-old Hirvonen was frustrated at his pace and softened his suspension spring settings for the afternoon loop to try to improve his feeling and increase his speed.  Hirvonen was tied for third with Duval after the penultimate stage but Duval had the edge again on the final test.

"I'm happy, although I struggled for grip in places this morning," said Duval.  "These stages were new to me so I made many changes to my pace notes during the first pass.  There was a lot of gravel on the road because cars ahead were cutting corners and it was slippery. As a result I dropped too many seconds to the leaders but I feel confident with the car and it's a good feeling to be back in the Ford team again.

"Tomorrow should be better for me because the roads are twistier.  I plan to attack hard tomorrow.  Mikko is very close behind me and he will push hard also, so I have no alternative," added Duval.

Hirvonen was happier this afternoon after the changes gave him a more comfortable feeling.  "The gap to the leaders was quite large after the first loop," he said.  "I didn't feel confident with the car and didn't push as much as I knew I could so I talked with my engineers to see how we could find more speed.  We changed to softer suspension springs, closer to the set-up I had for Rallye Deutschland in August.  I prefer a softer set-up with more grip, that's my natural feeling, so I had more confidence and my times were closer to the leaders.  It's not possible to make big changes to the car because then I would end up compromising in other areas.

"I had a good battle with François, and I'm sure it will be the same tomorrow, but I can't say I enjoyed the day.  The morning was disappointing which I didn't expect.  After the test in Spain last week I felt excited as everything felt good and I thought I'd made a good step in the right direction.  I was happier this afternoon and I hope we can do some magic tonight," he added.

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr completed all six stages but retired from 15th place during the liaison section after the last test.  "I felt I had driven well on the previous stage but the time wasn't good so we decided to go for a big push on the last test," said Al Qassimi.  "Unfortunately I had a big spin and the car ended in a ditch.  I got out it out and finished the stage but the differential began to make a noise on the road section.  It got progressively worse and I had to stop.  It's disappointing but I will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was happy with third and fourth positions.  "I'm surprised at the size of the gap that the leading two cars opened during the first three stages.  However, we made some changes to Mikko's car at service which resulted in him feeling more confident this afternoon, and both drivers are in strong positions for the second leg," he added.

News from our Rivals

Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) controlled the day by winning all six stages to build a 15.8sec lead over team-mate Dani Sordo, who was second fastest on each stage.  Behind the Ford duo, there was little movement on the leaderboard all day.  Petter Solberg (Subaru) holds fifth ahead of Urmo Aava (Citroen) while Norway's Andreas Mikkelsen (Ford) lies seventh, having been fifth earlier in the leg.  Stobart driver Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) rounds off the top eight.  Toni Gardemeister (Suzuki) spun on the opening stage before dropping off the top 10 leaderboard when he lost two minutes with a puncture in the penultimate test.  Team-mate Per-Gunnar Andersson (Suzuki) retired on the second stage after crashing into a ditch.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg takes drivers north-west of Salou for two identical clockwise loops of three tests covering 127.98km, split by a return to the town for service.  The opening stage of each loop is the monster 38.27km El Priorat / La Ribera d'Ebre, the longest of the rally.  Competitors leave Salou at 07.30 and return for the final overnight halt at 17.56.
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