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BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team held first and second in Rally d'Italia Sardegna following today's opening leg after winning four of the six demanding gravel speed tests.  Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila returned to the rally base in Olbia this evening with a 39.8sec advantage over team-mates and fellow Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen.  Both pairings are driving Ford Focus RS World Rally Cars.

The roasting temperatures encountered on the Mediterranean holiday island of Sardinia matched the blistering pace displayed by the Ford duo.  Temperatures soared to 30ºC under cloudless skies as Latvala won two special stages during this morning's loop of three tests south of Olbia, and another two victories during the afternoon pass over the same roads.  The six tests, over narrow but fast and flowing tracks, covered 130.20km.

Start order is always crucial in Sardinia where a slippery sandy surface hampers the early runners.  Latvala, seventh in the running order, made the most of cleaner and faster roads to build a 14.6sec lead during the morning loop.  "Although I led at lunchtime, I didn’t feel I found a good rhythm this morning as I was braking too much," said 24-year-old Latvala.  "Under braking the engine revs were falling and the car felt as if it was going to stall, but that was simply because I was braking too hard."

The team fitted new brake pads and lowered the rear suspension to provide more grip through Pirelli's Scorpion tyres and Latvala felt more comfortable.  He extended his lead this afternoon to 17.2sec before closest rival Sébastien Loeb slowed close to the finish of the final stage, taking a bold gamble to sacrifice time in favour of a slightly better start position tomorrow by dropping from second to third.

"It's the first time I've led at the end of a leg since Rally GB last season, so I'm delighted," said Latvala.  "I found a better rhythm this afternoon and the set-up change to the car made a big improvement.  I don't have much experience of running first in the start order on loose gravel so tomorrow will be a challenge.  We need to keep cool heads and do a good job because the pressure is on the guys behind.  The roads were flowing and that was good for a Finn like me.  Loeb began the tactics on the last stage and we reacted well by stepping up our pace to build as big a lead as possible." 

Team-mate Hirvonen spent much of yesterday in bed with a fever.  The 28-year-old felt better today and completed the opening loop in third, 18.3sec behind Latvala.  He remained there until the final stage, climbing to second as a result of Loeb's gamble.  The difference between the drivers is 3.0sec.

"The roads were slippery this morning and I wasn't 100 per cent confident," said Hirvonen.  "They were twisty, fast and narrow anyway, so to have less than perfect confidence made things difficult.  I felt tired and lacking energy and had stomach cramps in the stages.  It wasn't ideal because just one small mistake means it's easy to hit a rock or tree stump on the edge of the road.

"I knew there was the potential for tactics to come into play on the last stage, but road position today hasn't made as much of a difference as we thought it could, and I hope that is the same tomorrow.  We will take some risks to drive flat out.  Jari-Matti has a strong lead and the opportunity is there for one of us to win this rally," he added.

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 10th in another Focus RS WRC, despite brake difficulties this morning.  "I had to pump the pedal about 50 metres before a bend to get them to work so I drove cautiously," said Al Qassimi.  "We bled the brakes at service and they were better for stages four and five. We bled them again before stage six and went really well in that last test.  We showed good confidence in the car and considering the tough morning we had, it's a good result.  Hopefully we can try to push some more tomorrow, although some of the roads will be new to me."

News from other Ford teams

Stobart drivers Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud lie sixth in their Focus RS WRC after a problem-free day.  However, they did receive a shock on the penultimate test when their car's bonnet opened and eventually broke away from its mountings totally.  Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin lie ninth in a similar car.  They dropped time this morning when the hydraulic pipe split, allowing the fluid to leak out and leaving Wilson with no paddle shift gearchange or functioning centre differential.  Munchi's Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc had difficulties with their car's launch control this morning and then retired from the leg on stage four with a transmission problem.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg is based further inland in the Sassari region and is the longest of the rally.  After starting at 06.30, drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages, split by a return to Olbia for service at lunchtime.  Drivers return to the town for the final overnight halt at 19.15 after 130.74km of competition.  The itinerary includes a spectacular jump on the Monte Lerno stage, the final test of each loop, which always provides tremendous action for television cameras and photographers alike.

Leaderboard after Day 1

1.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila, Ford Focus RS   1hr 24min 14.5sec
2.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen,   Ford Focus RS   1hr 24min 54.3sec
3.  S Loeb/D Elena,  Citroen C4              1hr 24min 57.3sec
4.  P Solberg/P Mills,   Citroen Xsara           1hr 25min 00.9sec
5.  E Novikov/D Moscatt,   Citroen C4              1hr 25min 19.2sec
6.  H Solberg/C Menkerud,   Ford Focus RS   1hr 25min 22.7sec
7.  M Østberg/V Engan,   Subaru Impreza  1hr 25min 31.1sec
8.  D Sordo/M Marti ,  Citroen C4              1hr 25min 51.8sec
9.  M Wilson/S Martin ,  Ford Focus RS   1hr 26min 48.3sec
10 K Al Qassimi/M Orr,  Ford Focus RS   1hr 27min 14.4sec

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