BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team are well-positioned after today's demanding opening leg of Rally de Portugal. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie fourth in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car with team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in sixth, after a day in which the abrasive roads in the hills above the Algarve region forced drivers to concentrate hard on managing tyre wear.

The good news for Ford's Finnish duo was that temperatures were lower than expected, putting less of a strain on Pirelli's Scorpion rubber. However, while the bedrock which forms the base of the roads offered excellent grip, it was also highly abrasive and drivers had to treat their tyres carefully to ensure the tread remained intact through the long competitive sections.

This sixth round of the FIA World Rally Championship began last night when Hirvonen powered into an early lead through a short, but spectacular, speed test in front of more than 20,000 fans inside Faro's soccer stadium - the base for the rally. This morning the action moved into the traditional countryside special stages north of the town. Drivers tackled two identical loops of three speed tests before switching off their engines for the day after 130.61km of competition.

Latvala and Hirvonen were second and third respectively in the start order. It meant they were disadvantaged by the loose gravel on the surface, which the early starters unwillingly swept clean to leave a faster line for those behind. Hirvonen ended the morning loop in third and ceded a place this afternoon to return to Faro 46.9sec from the lead, and pleased to have a better road position tomorrow.

"I was happy with the car's handling and my driving, and testing on Monday so close to the rally helped me," said the 29-year-old. "I was in no rush to catch the guys ahead because I knew third or fourth tonight would give me a good position in the start order tomorrow. I struggled with my tyres on the final two stages and I expect that tomorrow's roads could be even harder for them. Conditions this morning were OK, but the roads were really abrasive this afternoon and it was tough on the tyres.

"I believe I can fight for a top position. We'll know more after the first stage in the morning, because we'll know exactly how much the conditions will disadvantage the cars at the front throughout the rest of the day," added Hirvonen.

Latvala, winner of the previous round in New Zealand, was returning to the rally in which he had a massive crash last year. The 25-year-old believes that may have been on his mind this morning as he settled into sixth, a position he retained throughout the day.

"I was too cautious on the opening stage this morning," admitted Latvala. "I was afraid of tyre wear on the hard roads and maybe last year's accident was at the back of my mind as well. I wasn't scared, but just not so confident. I carried two spare wheels but it was cloudy and cooler than we expected on the stages so there were no tyre wear concerns. Last year I attacked hard from the start here but that's not my job this year, and I started to find my confidence on the last stage of the loop.

"This afternoon was harder for the rubber and I lost the tread on my rear tyres on the final stage. I knew it was going to happen before the start of the test so I eased my pace. I'm hard and aggressive on tyres and I think tomorrow will be even more difficult so I need to find a calmer rhythm. Perhaps I need to be gentler in my braking because I want to move up the leaderboard and I can't do that if I damage my tyres," he added.

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 12th in the team's third car. Al Qassimi, returning to the series for the first time since February's opening round in Sweden, took time to shake off the rust. "The road conditions were fast and hard and this morning it was tricky to find a rhythm, which is vital if I am to build up my confidence. I was happier with the afternoon, although we grazed the side of a house at one point, and I'll try to keep the same pace tomorrow," said Al Qassimi.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson said: "The important thing tonight was to ensure our drivers were in a good start position for tomorrow, which will be the toughest leg of the rally. We achieved that, in conditions that were also very hard, and I'm looking forward to the advantage of road position resting with us. Both cars ran faultlessly and that's equally important in an event where attrition could play a big part in the final outcome."

News from other Ford teams

Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor hold seventh, despite steering issues, one place ahead of team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin. Monster World Rally Team duo Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino rolled into retirement on the final stage this morning. They hope to return under SupeRally rules tomorrow. The Ford Fiesta S2000 lies first and second in the S-WRC support category. Finns Jari Ketomaa and Mika Stenberg lead Nasser Al-Attiyah and Giovanni Bernacchini by 23.2sec.

Saturday’s Route

The second leg is based further east but remains in the Serra do Caldeirão hills, north of Faro. After restarting at 08.10, drivers tackle two loops of three stages which are split by a return to Faro for service. They return to the town for the final overnight halt at 17.45 after 135.10km of competition, the longest day of the rally.

Leaderboard after Day 1 1. S Ogier/J Ingrassia FRA Citroen C4 1hr 20min 34.4sec

2. D Sordo/M Marti, Citroen C4, 1hr 21min 01.0sec

3. S Loeb/D Elena, Citroen C4, 1hr 21min 19.2sec

4. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen,  Ford Focus RS, 1hr 21min 21.3sec

5. P Solberg/P Mills,  Citroen C4, 1hr 21min 24.3sec

6. J-M Latvala/M Anttila, Ford Focus RS, 1hr 21min 37.2sec

7. H Solberg/I Minor,  Ford Focus RS, 1hr 21min 55.1sec

8. M Wilson/S Martin, Ford Focus RS, 1hr 22min 29.0sec

9. M Østberg/J Andersson,  Subaru Impreza, 1hr 23min 11.7sec

10 K Räikkönen/K Lindström,  Citroen C4, 1hr 23min 52.5sec


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