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BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen lead Rally GB after controlling today's opening leg in south Wales.  The Finns, winners of six rounds of the FIA World Rally Championship this season, were fastest on four of the six speed tests in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to build a 25.8sec advantage.  Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen were second, but retired midway through the leg on safety grounds after a heavy impact damaged their car's roll cage.

The final round of the 16-rally series started outside Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, the home of Welsh rugby, last night.  The action moved 70km west to the Swansea service park this morning, around which today's action was based.  Drivers faced two identical loops of three classic special stages in the Vale of Neath forests covering 139.62km.

Conditions were mild but heavy overnight rain left the already saturated gravel forest roads slippery and muddy.  Both Grönholm and Hirvonen opted for BFGoodrich's soft compound tyres on their Focus RS cars, with additional cuts hand-carved into the rubber to help clear the mud.

Grönholm and Hirvonen were first and second fastest on each of the opening three stages in Margam, Resolfen and Rheola forests, the 38-year-old double world champion leading 25-year-old Hirvonen by 19.1sec at service.  Grönholm added a fourth stage win in the second pass through Resolfen to stretch his lead to 25.8sec over Petter Solberg.

"It was normal Rally GB conditions this morning with plenty of mud, but no standing water," said Grönholm.  "First through the stages was the best place to be in those conditions.  We pushed hard but took no risks.  This afternoon I was not in such a fighting mood, I drove a little too safely and Petter closed in.  But I am where I wanted to be tonight and tomorrow I will push hard again.

"Tomorrow's stages are shorter and tricky, especially if it rains and that seems likely.  I want to keep Petter behind me but he is always fast on this rally and that won't be easy.  I must wake up early and push hard if I am to stand a chance of winning," he added.   

Hirvonen hit a large stone on the penultimate corner of the opening stage and the impact damaged the roll cage of his Focus RS.  Although the 25-year-old Finn returned to service with no further problems, having set second fastest time on all three tests, the BP-Ford team had to withdraw the car for safety reasons.

"I just slid wide and went over some rocks on the outside of the corner," he said.  "It was a stupid mistake because there was plenty of room.  I wanted to carry on and the car was still competitive but it's a safety issue so we cannot.  It's a big shame because BP-Ford was first and second and that would have been a great way to end the season."

"BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said: "Marcus has controlled the rally all day.  Tomorrow he is running behind Petter in the start order and I'm confident he can match his pace accordingly.  It was a big disappointment for Mikko.  It was the first rally on which he had permission to drive as fast as he liked after doing such a great job for the team this season.  He was frustrated because the car was OK to drive and competitive, but the roll cage was damaged

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Petter Solberg (Subaru) overcame a first stage problem when his car twice stopped at a hairpin to settle into fourth.  He climbed to second this afternoon with a stage win and a shared fastest time with Grönholm.  Manfred Stohl (Peugeot) was in the top three throughout the day, despite a puncture on stage four.  Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) excelled on his first drive in a 2006-specification Focus RS to hold fourth.  Team-mates Dani Sordo and Xevi Pons (both Citroen) were fifth and sixth, although Pons lost time when he spun on the second stage and punctured on the penultimate test.  Chris Atkinson (Subaru) held fifth but dropped two places after his car stopped for 45sec on the final stage while Henning Solberg (Peugeot) lost five minutes after sliding into a ditch on stage three.  Apart from Hirvonen, the main retirement was Andreas Aigner (Skoda) who rolled out on stage five.       

Top 10 after Leg 1

 1.  Gronholm   Ford    1h14:51.9
2. Solberg Subaru + 25.8
3. Stohl Peugeot + 48.1
4. Latvala Ford + 1:54.4
5. Sordo Citroen + 2:11.0
6. Pons Citroen + 2:11.9
7. Atkinson Subaru + 2:46.2
8. Higgins Ford + 2:52.7
9. Duval Skoda + 2:53.1
10. Rovanpera Skoda + 3:40.2


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