BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team rediscovered its feel for asphalt competition today as Rally Bulgaria made its debut in the FIA World Rally Championship.  It is 278 days since the last sealed-surface round of the series concluded in Spain in October last year, and drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila shook off the rust to end the opening leg in fourth and fifth respectively.

The ski resort of Borovets, the oldest in Bulgaria and 60km south of Sofia, hosts this seventh round of the 13-rally series.  Heavy rain dampened last night's start ceremony in nearby Samokov, but the roads were virtually dry as the 43 competitors set out for the first of three days' action this morning.  They tackled two identical loops of two speed tests covering 118.68km around the picturesque Batak and Belmeken reservoirs, south-east of Borovets, climbing to an altitude of 2100 metres.

The BP Ford Abu Dhabi drivers were evenly matched throughout the day.  After the opening loop of special stages 29-year-old Hirvonen led his fellow Finn by 5.1sec in sixth and seventh respectively.  Hirvonen lowered the suspension settings on his Focus RS WRC during the lunchtime service halt, while Latvala stiffened the settings at the front of his car and both showed improved pace over the afternoon tests to climb the order.  They ended the day separated by 10.3sec.

"I wasn't so confident with my pace notes this morning, sometimes they were too fast for the roads and sometimes too slow," said Hirvonen.  "The car felt good when conditions were dirty and damp.  I tried to be neat and tidy and take racing lines but the times weren't as good as I hoped.  The afternoon was better.  The changes we made to the set-up helped and I also drove better.  I was more committed and aggressive at the wheel, although I made a few small mistakes.

"The slippery sections seem to be better for us than the dry roads so perhaps rain over the next two days would help.  The team worked hard during the summer break and the car feels better in some areas.  I think that my asphalt driving has also improved so we'll continue to push tomorrow and try to close the gap on those ahead of us," added Hirvonen, who opted for Pirelli's hard compound PZero tyres throughout the day.

Latvala selected the same tyre option and the 25-year-old felt his performance improved as the day progressed.  "I made no mistakes this morning but I felt I could improve my driving.  The afternoon was better and my times improved.  I was driving pretty much at the same speed as Mikko all day.  The roads were wet, muddy and covered in gravel in places this afternoon and I'm glad we had safety crews in place to relay that information to us before we drove the stages," he said.

"This morning when I entered long corners under braking the car felt a little unbalanced, too soft at the front and lifting at the rear.  The team made the car harder at the front to help the stability under braking.  It was better, but still too soft so we'll make it even stiffer for tomorrow.  If the settings are stiffer then the car should be more precise and stable at the front," added Latvala.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson admitted he was encouraged by the improved performances during the afternoon.  "I was disappointed with the way we started, taking into account the testing and work we have done during the summer break.  But I was pleased with the way we improved on the final two stages.  The changes we made at the lunchtime service made a difference and we'll look at the data tonight and see if we should make more changes tomorrow," he said.

News from other Ford teams

P-G Andersson and Jonas Andersson, making their debuts for the Stobart M-Sport Ford team, are seventh in a Focus RS WRC.  The Swedes made a cautious start and stiffened the settings on their car for the afternoon stages.  Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are ninth, the British pair struggling to reacclimatise to asphalt after such a long time away from the surface.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg again revisits territory east of the Dolna Banya service park.  The opening two stages contain sections of road used today, but in the opposite direction, while the other stage is located further north.  After restarting at 07.00, drivers complete two identical loops of the three tests before returning to Dolna Banya for the final overnight halt at 18.18.  Overnight rain is forecast but it is again expected to clear before the action begins.

Leaderboard after Day 1
1.  S Loeb/D Elena                      FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 05min 26.7sec
2.  D Sordo/M Marti                     ESP             Citroen C4              1hr 05min 54.8sec
3.  P Solberg/C Patterson               NOR             Citroen C4              1hr 06min 04.7sec
4.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 06min 37.6sec
5.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila               FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 06min 47.9sec
6.  S Ogier/J Ingrassia                 FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 06min 58.0sec
7.  P-G Andersson/J Andersson   SWE             Ford Focus RS   1hr 07min 53.0sec
8.  F Turan/G Lsiros                    HUN             Peugeot 307             1hr 08min 15.8sec
9.  M Wilson/S Martin           GBR             Ford Focus RS   1hr 09min 12.3sec
10 H Solberg/I Minor                    NOR             Ford Fiesta S2000       1hr 10min 10.1sec
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