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BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen led Rally Finland after winning five speed tests during today's first leg. The Finns, chasing their sixth victory here in seven years, powered their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car into the lead during a rain-soaked morning and returned to the rally base in Jyväskylä this evening with a 12.0sec advantage. Team-mates and fellow countrymen Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie third in a similar Focus RS, 43.5sec behind their colleagues.

Thousands of fans packed the trotting track at Killeri last night to view the short but spectacular opening speed test.  However, the action began in earnest this morning when this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship moved into the forests surrounding Jyväskylä.  Drivers tackled eight more stages, including a second pass through Killeri this evening, covering 146.49km in total.

Rally Finland is regarded as the classic event in the 16-round series.  Dauntingly fast roads and stomach-churning jumps through the forests are the rally's trademark.  Despite overnight rain and frequent heavy showers throughout the day, which ensured Grönholm and Hirvonen remained on BFGoodrich's soft compound tyres all leg, speeds were as high as ever.

Grönholm attacked from the first kilometre this morning, winning all three special stages on the opening loop and setting a remarkable average speed of 124.95kph on the opening test.  He added another two stage victories this afternoon and was never out of the top two times.

"We tested in the dry here last month but the set-up worked well in the rain also," said 38-year-old Grönholm.  "The roads were extremely wet in places and dry in others and although it was difficult to drive in such changeable weather, we had constant grip.  The rain was so heavy in one stage this afternoon that the windscreen wipers would not go fast enough and I just couldn't see.

"I decided to attack hard from the start of the first stage this morning.  I was flat out at the beginning but then I heard the split times and realised that I could afford to slow down a little bit.  I drove a little too safely sometimes this afternoon but the second pass through the stages was difficult with many ruts and stones.  Tomorrow there are some stages where I can push more than others but it really needs to be flat out the whole way," he added.  

Hirvonen, who lives in Jyväskylä, delighted his home-town fans by settling into second this morning.  The 26-year-old slipped behind Sébastien Loeb this afternoon but remained third, despite twice stalling the engine at the start of stages after a minor problem with the launch control system.

"Third is a good position tonight, although first or second would be even better!" he said.  "At times this afternoon I was over-driving at every corner and as a result the car was sliding too much.  It's quicker to back-off before the corner and take the bend in a straighter line.  There were so many corners that I got wrong and I needed a calmer pace. 

"I had hoped to have a troublefree day but it hasn't worked out like that due to the weather.  It was raining heavily in the first stage and the windscreen wipers stopped working for a while.  And on the penultimate stage it poured with rain again and it wasn't easy to drive in that.  All the ruts were full of water and I had several lucky escapes.  It was mad to drive at those speeds in that weather," he added.

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said both Focus RS cars received planned and precautionary transmission changes this evening.  "It would be good for Marcus to have a bigger lead but he feels comfortable.  They have both endured tricky conditions and Mikko was occasionally caught out, but he is a strong third and both drivers are happy with the day," he added. 

News from our Rivals

After a cautious start, championship leader Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) increased in confidence on the drier roads of the early afternoon and ended the leg with four fastest times.  Petter Solberg (Subaru) was untroubled in fourth, one place ahead of brother Henning (Peugeot), who steadily climbed the leaderboard throughout the day.  Chris Atkinson (Subaru) completed the top six despite overheating troubles this afternoon.  Dani Sordo (Citroen) lost time when his car's windscreen wipers failed on stage four but recovered to seventh ahead of Gigi Galli (Peugeot), who dropped 40sec with a spin on the following stage.  Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) dropped five minutes with broken suspension in stage six after hitting a rock and incurred a 70sec penalty as the team made repairs.  Daniel Carlsson (Mitsubishi) climbed to sixth before crashing on the penultimate stage while Kosti Katajamäki (Ford) retired on the previous test after hitting a rock and ripping a rear wheel from his car.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg is regarded as the classic day of the world championship season.  Based on wide, flowing roads close to Jamsä, it includes some of rallying's greatest stages.  The highlight is two passes over the awesome Ouninpohja tests, a roller-coaster stretch of road full of blind crests and huge jumps and viewed as rallying's ultimate test of skill.  After leaving Jyväskylä at 06.00, drivers tackle eight stages covering 144.90km before returning for the final overnight halt at 20.34.

Leaderboard after Leg 1
1.  M Grönholm/T Rautiainen     FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 12min 59.6sec
2.  S Loeb/D Elena                      F               Citroen Xsara           1hr 13min 11.6sec
3.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 13min 43.1sec
4.  P Solberg/P Mills                   N               Subaru Impreza  1hr 13min 52.5sec
5.  H Solberg/C Menkerud                N               Peugeot 307             1hr 14min 46.8sec
6.  C Atkinson/G MacNeall               AUS             Subaru Impreza  1hr 15min 16.7sec
7.  D Sordo/M Marti                     E               Citroen Xsara           1hr 15min 44.6sec
8.  G Galli/G Bernacchini               I               Peugeot 307             1hr 15min 49.2sec
9.  J Välimäki/J Kalliolepo             FIN             Mitsubishi Lancer     &nbs p; 1hr 16min 01.9sec
10 J Tuohino/M Markkula         FIN             Citroen Xsara           1hr 16min 05.6sec

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