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BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen both held top three places after today's opening leg of Rally de Portugal.  Grönholm led throughout the day in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car before being edged into second during the final few kilometres, while Hirvonen is third in a similar car after tough gravel speed tests in the hills above the Algarve coastline.

The rally is back in the FIA World Rally Championship after a five-year absence and the series is visiting the Portuguese holiday region for the first time having moved from its former base on the west coast.  The special stages were new to virtually all the top drivers, and Hirvonen is one of just three who have previous experience of these roads.

This fifth round of the championship began last night with a spectacular purpose-built speed test inside the Estádio Algarve soccer arena, just outside Faro.  It continued today with two identical loops of three stages north-east of the town, covering 122.79km in total.  The hard-packed roads were abrasive and, combined with ground temperatures which reached 34°C this afternoon, they placed high demands on the BFGoodrich tyres fitted to the Focus RS cars.

Grönholm was fastest on last night's test, held in front of more than 20,000 fans in the soccer stadium.  The 39-year-old Finn initially extended his advantage this morning but a broken front right shock absorber, the legacy of a heavy landing, forced him to be cautious through the final test and Sébastien Loeb closed the gap to 2.6sec at the lunchtime service.   

"I was lucky to be leading because I jumped badly midway through the first stage," he explained.  "The landing was hard and broke the front right shock absorber and cracked the windscreen.  I was angry with myself for making the mistake and that spurred me on to win the next stage.  I'm surprised I completed the loop because the front right was crashing into the ground in the last stage but it shows just how strong the Focus RS is."

Fastest time, his third of the rally, on the opening stage this afternoon enabled Grönholm to pull further ahead but Loeb retaliated to take the lead on the final test.  The margin is just 3.1sec.  "I didn't have any problems and the car was fine but Seb was just faster than me," said Grönholm.  "He is often faster in the afternoon when he has learned the stages during the first loop but the time gap is small, I'm not far away and everything is possible.  The roads were hard on the tyres this afternoon and it's going to be the same tomorrow."

Hirvonen won the day's opening stage and returned to service in third, just 4.9sec behind his team-mate.  The 26-year-old Finn suffered more tyre wear than Grönholm this afternoon and fell behind the battling duo, ending the day 25.3sec from the lead.
"I have experience of these roads from 2005 when I drove a Group N car here but that didn't count for a lot because there is so much difference in performance between a Group N car and a World Rally Car," he said.  "I drove a little too cautiously this morning and that was silly because everything felt so good.  I wasn't unhappy with my performance, but it could have been better.  I didn't quite find the last bit of confidence I needed.

"I had a lot of tyre wear this afternoon, more than Marcus, and I need to find a solution.  Maybe I need to think about changing the car's set-up.  It was OK on the first stage after service but then I started to lose time.  Tomorrow's tests are even more abrasive and technical.  They have a mix of everything – crests, fast sections, twisty parts – and a perfect set of pace notes will be vital," he said.

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson described the day as 'one hell of a battle'.  "If Marcus hadn't broken the shock absorber then he would probably be leading.  But the margin is small, both cars are in great shape and we're in a good position to fight tomorrow.  There are two very difficult days still to come," he said.
News from our Rivals

A quartet of Grönholm, Hirvonen, Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) and Petter Solberg (Subaru) fought for every second this morning and positions changed with every stage.  Loeb suffered three punctures on the first stage today but recovered this afternoon to take the lead.  Solberg was second this morning but suffered tyre wear problems this afternoon and spun on the penultimate test.  He lies 7.5sec behind Hirvonen while Dani Sordo (Citroen) is fifth ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford).  Latvala spun last night and dropped a further 40sec when he stalled on the first stage this morning, but then set three top three times to climb back up the leaderboard.  Jan Kopecky (Skoda) retired with brake troubles after the first stage while Mads Ostberg (Subaru) and Guy Wilks (Ford) both rolled out.

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg promises to be the toughest of the rally with three long stages north-west of Faro lying in wait.  The opening 30.69km stage is the longest of the rally and contains so many different characteristics that some drivers rate it one of the most technically demanding they have ever seen.  After leaving Faro at 08.30, drivers tackle two identical loops of three stages, split by a return to service, covering 152.92km.  They return to Faro for the final overnight halt at 18.45.

Positions after Leg 1

Pos  Driver      Make        Time
1. Loeb Citroen 1h25:39.0
2. Gronholm Ford + 3.1
3. Hirvonen Ford + 25.3
4. Solberg Subaru + 32.8
5. Sordo Citroen + 1:10.9
6. Latvala Ford + 1:42.2
7. Stohl Citroen + 2:01.0
8. Atkinson Subaru + 2:12.2
9. Carlsson Citroen + 2:19.4
10. Solberg Ford + 2:42.3

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