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Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila headed a strong start to Rallye de France for Ford World Rally Team by holding second place after today’s opening leg.  The Finns won three speed tests in their Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car, while team-mates Petter Solberg and Chris Patterson bounced back from a difficult morning to lie fourth.
Asphalt roads are Latvala’s least-favoured, but the 27-year-old maintained the pace that carried him to a career-best sealed-surface result in Germany in August, when he was second.  “Today was one of my best ever on asphalt,” he said.
This 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship opened last night with a short speed test in the streets surrounding Strasbourg’s European Parliament.  Today the action moved south to the Vosges mountains, near Colmar, where drivers tackled two identical loops of three stages, before ending with a street test in Mulhouse – a total of 146.17km.
Conditions this morning were difficult as yesterday’s heavy rain left damp sections under the trees on the mountain slopes.  The moist roads and cool temperatures encouraged both Latvala and Solberg to opt for Michelin’s soft compound tyres for the opening loop.  While they were less suited to the mostly dry roads in the opening stage, they were perfect for the next two which were damper.
Latvala was second in Strasbourg last night before claiming third in today’s opening stage.  He was second quickest in the next, only 0.8sec from fastest time, before winning the final stage of the morning.  He arrived at the 15-minute service break in Colmar in second place.
“I really want to fight for the lead here so it was important to make a strong start and not lose big time this morning,” said Latvala.  “Tyre choice wasn’t easy.  The first stage was surprisingly dry and my soft tyres started to get too hot near the finish.  But the second stage was 80 per cent damp and the last test was 50 per cent damp and they worked perfectly.  Soft was the right choice.”
As temperatures climbed to 22°C this afternoon, hard compound tyres were the natural choice.  Latvala was fastest in the middle stage of the loop and completed the leg with victory in the final test through the streets of Mulhouse.
“My target was to improve my performance from the last asphalt round in Germany and I did that,” said Latvala.  “I was a little inconsistent at times because I lacked confidence in corners where mud had been dragged onto the road by cars cutting.  Maybe I was trying to drive too fast and attack too much.  Tomorrow’s stages are narrow and bumpier, but I will try to keep the pressure on.”
Solberg was third last night but struggled for confidence in today’s opening two stages.  His pace improved on the final stage of the loop but he arrived in Colmar in sixth.
“I didn’t have a good rhythm through the first two stages,” explained the 37-year-old Norwegian.  “I wasn’t confident so I drove cautiously as I didn’t want to make a mistake.  I made minor changes to the settings before the final stage and everything felt much better.”
More small changes in service further improved his feeling and three second fastest times promoted him to fourth, closing to within 0.7sec of Mikko Hirvonen in third.
“The afternoon was much better,” said Solberg.  “Once I had the right feeling then my pace was at the same level as Jari-Matti.  It’s a shame that I lost time in the first two stages.  Tomorrow I will keep pushing to try to reach the podium and if I can keep the same rhythm as I had this afternoon then that’s achievable.”
Ford World Rally Team director Malcolm Wilson said he wasn’t surprised by the pace shown by his drivers today.  “I felt we could come here and put pressure on Sébastien Loeb and I’m pleased we’ve done that,” he said.  “Hopefully the conditions tomorrow will be dry and consistent, which is what Jari-Matti likes, and he will keep the pressure on.
“Petter wasn’t totally comfortable this morning but he had a strong afternoon and is within striking distance of the podium,” added Wilson. 
News from other Ford teams
Mads Østberg / Jonas Andersson are seventh for Adapta World Rally Team, the Norwegian driver losing time when his car stalled at the start of the final stage.  M-Sport Ford World Rally Team’s Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and Evgeny Novikov / Ilka Minor are engrossed in a close battle for eighth in their Fiesta RS WRCs.  Tänak holds the advantage by just 13.5sec, despite struggling with his pace notes.  Martin Prokop / Zdenĕk Hrůza lie 12th after suffering an engine misfire in the Czech Ford National Team car throughout the day.  French duo Julien Maurin / Nicolas Klinger are 16th while Brazil World Rally Team’s Daniel Oliveira / Carlos Magalhaes are 24th, after losing time with a broken right rear driveshaft this afternoon. 
Tomorrow’s Route
The second leg comprises almost half the rally’s competitive distance.  After leaving Strasbourg at 07.30, drivers journey south-west for more tests in the Vosges mountains and over vineyard roads.  They tackle two identical loops of four stages, split by a return to Strasbourg for service, before the day ends at 19.33 after 192.80km.  The most daunting challenge is the 43.45km Pays d’Ormont, the second test of each loop and one of the longest of the season.
Leaderboard after Day 1
1.  S Loeb/D Elena                      FRA             Citroen DS3             1hr 17min 32.6sec
2.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila               FIN             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 17min 45.7sec
3.  M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen               FIN             Citroen DS3             1hr 18min 05.2sec
4.  P Solberg/C Patterson               NOR             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 18min 05.9sec
5.  D Sordo/C Del Barrio                ESP             Mini John Cooper        1hr 18min 21.4sec
6.  T Neuville/N Gilsoul                BEL             Citroen DS3             1hr 18min 28.0sec
7.  M Østberg/J Andersson               NOR             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 18min 32.9sec
8.  O Tänak/K Sikk                      EST             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 18min 55.0sec
9.  E Novikov/I Minor                   RUS             Ford Fiesta RS  1hr 19min 08.5sec
10 S Chardonnet/T De La Haye    FRA             Citroen DS3             1hr 20min 23.6sec

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