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BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team won all six of today’s speed tests to hold first and second after the opening leg of Rally Poland.  Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen established themselves at the head of the leaderboard this morning in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car and remained there throughout the day to build an overnight lead of 8.9sec.  Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are second in a similar car, both pairings winning three special stages each.

This eighth round of the FIA World Rally Championship marks the return of the series to Poland for the first time since 1973.  It is based in the picturesque town of Mikolajki in the Mazurian Lake District, 250km north of Warsaw, and fans have turned out in huge numbers to welcome the world’s best drivers to their country.  Up to 200,000 are forecast to watch the action over the weekend.

The event began on Friday night with a spectacular 2.50km superspecial stage in a purpose-built arena on the edge of Mikolajki.  The competition began in earnest on Friday morning when drivers journeyed east of the town to tackle two identical loops of three gravel tests covering another 110.70km.  Hirvonen and Latvala compared the roads to those in their native Finland and the speeds were just as fast.  Hirvonen’s victory on the penultimate stage was achieved at a remarkable average of 129.44kph.

Torrential rain in the build-up to the rally raised fears that the sandy roads would quickly become rutted.  However, dry conditions today ensured the surface did not break up as much as was feared.

Hirvonen, third after Thursday night’s test, was quickest on the morning’s opening two stages to take a slender 0.3sec lead.  The 28-year-old extended his advantage before the lunchtime service as the tricky roads trapped closest rival Sébastien Loeb, who crashed into retirement.  He won another stage this afternoon, stunning his rivals with a time more than eight seconds faster than anyone else in just 11.34km of competition.

“I want 10 points from here and after Loeb’s accident I must think about the championship now,” said Hirvonen, who lies second in the drivers’ standings, seven points behind the Frenchman. 

“After I saw Loeb’s car, I eased my pace because I didn’t want to make the same mistake.  I had marked the tree stump that he hit in my pace notes and actually discussed it with Jari-Matti before we started this morning.  It’s a new rally with new pace notes so that kind of accident can happen to anyone and I can’t afford to do anything stupid tomorrow.

“The roads were fast and narrow and conditions this afternoon weren’t as bad as we feared.  There were only a few ruts and I really enjoy driving these stages.  They are my type of roads, with something happening all the time.  My stage win this afternoon was fantastic.  I had the kind of feeling that I can’t describe.  We must take full advantage of this situation over the next two days.  Start order isn’t an issue here so I have no concerns about being first on the road tomorrow,” added Hirvonen.

Latvala began the day in ninth but ended the morning in second, courtesy of fastest time on the final stage of the loop.  The 24-year-old won two more tests this afternoon to build a 28.1sec advantage over third-placed Dani Sordo.

“The roads are so fast that it took the first two stages for my brain to get used to the pace,” said Latvala.  “The grip changed constantly.  When the surface was hard it was slippery and when it was softer and sandy then the grip was better.  My feeling with the car improved as the day went on.  I dropped time to Mikko on the penultimate stage.  I thought I had driven perfectly but he was more than eight seconds faster.  It was the most incredible time.

“We all want a one-two finish with the championship in mind, so we have to be sensible and not become drawn into a pointless fight with Mikko.  But Dani Sordo will put the pressure on tomorrow so we need to keep a fast pace,” added Latvala.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson described Hirvonen and Latvala’s performances as ‘classy’.  “Mikko has led for virtually the entire day and both drove sensibly, taking on board the significance of Loeb’s error this morning and perfectly factoring it into their driving for the rest of the day.  Both cars ran faultlessly on what are some of the fastest stages in the WRC calendar.  These fast roads clearly suit our Finnish drivers,” he said.

News from other Ford teams

Stobart drivers Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud are fifth in their Focus RS WRC.  The Norwegians struggled with their car’s set-up initially but quickly climbed the order as they grew accustomed to the characteristics of the Polish stages.  Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are seventh, the Britons also growing in confidence as their trust in the pace notes increased.  Polish heroes Krzysztof Holowczyc and Lukasz Kurzeja delighted their home crowds as they moved onto the leaderboard in the team’s third car.  Despite dropping 20sec following a spin on the morning’s final stage, they are ninth.

Saturday’s Route

The second leg again heads north-east of Mikolajki, but journeys further afield than today’s compact route.  Competitors leave the town at 09.00 and face two identical loops of three stages covering 149.44km.  Each loop includes two tests of more than 30km.  Drivers return to the town for the final overnight halt at 19.26.

Leaderboard after Day 1

1.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen  FIN  Ford Focus RS 1hr 02min 23.1sec
2.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila  FIN  Ford Focus RS 1hr 02min 32.0sec
3.  D Sordo/M Marti   ESP  Citroen C4  1hr 03min 00.1sec
4.  P Solberg/P Mills   NOR  Citroen Xsara  1hr 03min 37.7sec
5.  H Solberg/C Menkerud  NOR  Ford Focus RS 1hr 03min 44.6sec
6.  S Ogier/J Ingrassia   FRA  Citroen C4  1hr 03min 56.0sec
7.  M Wilson/S Martin  GBR  Ford Focus RS 1hr 04min 19.6sec
8.  C Rautenbach/D Barritt  ZIM  Citroen C4  1hr 04min 54.6sec
9.  K Holowczyc/L Kurzeja  POL  Ford Focus RS 1hr 05min 02.9sec
10 M Østberg/ J Andersson  NOR  Subaru Impreza 1hr 06min 54.7sec

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