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BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen are tied for second in Rally Australia tonight after an enthralling day in which frequently changing positions and late afternoon tactics set up an exciting final leg showdown tomorrow.  Remarkably, just one-tenth of a second covers the top three cars after they jockeyed for position this evening in an attempt to secure the best starting slot to take advantage of favourable road conditions in the morning.

Hirvonen, who leads the drivers' standings in the FIA World Rally Championship in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, is tied with title rival Sébastien Loeb, just 0.1sec behind Dani Sordo.  Team-mates and long-time leaders Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are fourth in their Focus RS WRC, after bravely resisting the challenge of four drivers behind them for much of a marathon 15-hour leg.

Thirty-five of the original 40 starters left Kingscliff in northern New South Wales in darkness this morning for the second leg of this 10th round of the series.  Ahead lay eight gravel speed tests in the Tweed and Kyogle shires to the south-west, before a final visit to the asphalt special stages in the streets of Murwillumbah that began the rally on Thursday.  They faced 113.45km of action in total.

Hirvonen, lying fifth after the opening day, was quickly into his stride.  He won the opening test to climb to third, despite swiping a mail box which punched a hole in a rear side window of his Focus RS WRC, before claiming a second win on the final stage of the loop.  He took second this afternoon as he battled for supremacy with Loeb and, incredibly, he clipped the same mail box again - this time breaking a front side window!

Tactics came into play on the final country test, after which tomorrow's start order was calculated.  With Hirvonen having already completed the stage, Loeb slowed before the finish, promoting the Finn into the rally lead.  It means the Ford driver will be first to start and must play the role of road sweeper, cleaning the loose gravel from the surface to leave a cleaner and potentially faster line for those behind.  Still the excitement wasn't over as the drivers fought for tenths of a second in the Murwillumbah tests, setting up a dramatic finale.

"It's so close, it is incredible," said 29-year-old Hirvonen.  "The final leg is the longest of the rally, which is good because it means there are a lot of kilometres in which to fight for the win.  I tried to push as hard as possible this afternoon, but I tried too hard because I made some small mistakes.  I didn't want to be first on the road tomorrow but there was nothing I could do about it and it will be tough trying to win from that position if conditions are dry.  However, if it is wet, it could be perfect.  

"I had a very lucky escape on the second test this morning.  I went off the road on a fourth gear left bend and the car went into the bushes.  It bounced back onto the road without losing any speed, but if there had been a tree stump or a stone in there then I would certainly have rolled," he added.

Torrential early morning rain soaked the roads but was a blessing for 24-year-old Latvala.  He was first in the start order and the wet gravel offered better grip for his Pirelli tyres than the slippery loose stones on the surface that they encountered yesterday in the dry.  However, as the clouds cleared and the sun returned, the roads quickly dried and he had to endure the role of road sweeper.

Nevertheless, he held a slender 3.5sec advantage after the opening loop before finally ceding the lead this afternoon.  Then, on the final country stage, he damaged a tyre after hitting a bank, dropping 45sec and leaving him just 1.8sec ahead of Sébastien Ogier.

"About 3km after the start I approached a long, fast left bend with a bump on the exit," he said.  "I hit the bump and the car jumped sideways into the ditch.  The rear wheel hit a bank and the impact pushed the tyre off the rim.  I continued but about 5km from the end the tyre exploded, damaging the side of the car.  I had enjoyed the day but it was a disappointing end.  I suffered from sweeping the tracks this morning and it was harder being first on the road than I thought.  The first stage was wet but the others were mostly dry and I couldn't find a rhythm.  I lost time in slow bends because I slid wide too often."

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr restarted this morning under SupeRally rules with a 40 minute penalty after retiring yesterday with broken steering.  They climbed to 26th in their Focus RS WRC after an untroubled day.  

News from other Ford teams

Stobart VK M-Sport's Henning Solberg and Cato Menkerud remain sixth in their Focus RS WRC despite a high-speed crash on the second stage.  Their car slid into a ditch on a muddy 150kph left bend before hitting several fence posts.  The impact smashed the windscreen and the Norwegians drove the final two morning tests exposed to the elements and wearing goggles.  They lost 45sec but no places.  Team-mates Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin are still seventh, after a troublefree day with Munchi's drivers Federico Villagra and Jorge Perez Companc in eighth.

Tomorrow’s Route

The final leg is the longest and toughest of the rally.  After a 05.00 restart from Kingscliff, drivers make the long journey west of Kyogle for two loops of five speed tests covering 124.48km.  The first four stages of each loop are repeated and the final test of the event, the 22.41km Repco, is broadcast live on television.  Drivers have little respite in the event of problems, with just a brief 15-minute service in Kyogle between the loops.  They return to Kingscliff for the finish at 16.04.

Leaderboard after Day 2
1.  D Sordo/M Marti                     ESP             Citroen C4              1hr 52min 28.1sec
2= M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen                FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 52min 28.2sec
2= S Loeb/D Elena                       FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 52min 28.2sec
4.  J-M Latvala/M Anttila               FIN             Ford Focus RS   1hr 53min 12.5sec
5.  S Ogier/J Ingrassia                 FRA             Citroen C4              1hr 53min 14.3sec
6.  H Solberg/C Menkerud                NOR             Ford Focus RS   1hr 55min 10.5sec
7.  M Wilson/S Martin           GBR &nbsp ;           Ford Focus RS   1hr 55min 11.3sec
8.  F Villagra/J Perez Companc  ARG             Ford Focus RS   1hr 56min 27.9sec
9.  H Paddon/J Kennard          NZL             Mitsubishi Lancer       2hr 01min 44.1sec
10 M Prokop/J Tomanek           CZE             Mitsubishi Lancer       2hr 01min 57.4sec
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