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Norway - day 1: Loeb moves into P1 in final test

1 January 1901

Citroen team leader Sebastien Loeb heads the pack on Rally Norway following the opening day, having 'moved' ahead of arch rival, Mikko Hirvonen in the very final stage.

Loeb trailed Hirvonen for virtually all of the leg and while the Frenchman did briefly hold P1 this morning, when he set the pace in SS3 - the 8 kilometre-run through Kirkenaer, he slipped back in SS4.

Indeed Mikko beat Seb in five of the day's eight stages and was 7.3 seconds in front going into SS9, when he was uncharacteristically off the pace and only seventh fastest.

That allowed Loeb to take over at the head of the leaderboard and the five-time world champion will now start on Saturday with a 2.6 second cushion.

"I am very pleased. You can really push hard in these conditions. It's nice to be duelling with Mikko and the balance of my Citroën C4 WRC is perfect," said Loeb. "Thanks to the work of everyone on the team, its performance on snow has improved significantly."

Hirvonen meanwhile, at first insisted that he had been pushing in the repeat-run through Kirkenaer and that his lack of pace wasn't a tactical ploy to ensure a better road position on day two. Indeed he said the reason he was unable to go quicker was because his tyres were 'completely finished'.

Interestingly though, the Ford man later contradicted those statements completely in the team's official end of day release and he admitted he had slowed on purpose.

"I knew I would lose time on the [last] stage because it was twisty," he explained. "When we saw how much time we had dropped to Loeb mid-stage, I decided to slow.

"My lead would have been so small that it made sense to take the advantage of starting behind him tomorrow. I can follow his split times and react accordingly. It won't be easy but I like to be the guy chasing and not being chased."

Hirvonen's team-mate, Jari-Matti Latvala is next up and third in the sister BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT entry. Latvala held P3 right from the off this morning and while he was unable to keep up with the two in front, he has eased away from the rest of the pack and now lies 23.6 seconds off second and 42.4 seconds up on Dani Sordo in fourth.

He was not however, completely happy with his Focus this morning, but felt more comfortable this afternoon on the repeat loop and is confident he can now strike back on day two.

"I'm a little disappointed to have dropped time this morning but I'm back in the game tonight," Jari-Matti confirmed. "Tomorrow's stages are much faster and I'm third in the start order, which I think is the best position."

Sordo also had a solid run and moved up into fourth in SS3. The Spaniard then consolidated his position and currently has a 20-odd second advantage over Petter Solberg in fifth.

Petter, who won the short SSS in Oslo last night, has enjoyed a good start on his first event in his privately-entered Citroen Xsara WRC. The Norwegian set top-ten times in every single test - including a fourth best marker and two fifths.

"I'm happy. My position to the leaders is actually better than I had thought it might be," stated Petter. "Okay, we don't have the big speed, but we knew that was going to be the case. I've come here for fun, we've got to remember that. At the moment, I haven't made the big push yet."

Despite his pace though, 'Hollywood' is only fractionally in front of ex-Suzuki World Rally Team-man and two-time Junior World Rally champion, Per-Gunnar Andersson.

Like Petter, P-G is competing in his first event of the season this weekend and the Swede sprung a surprise by setting the pace in both SS6 and SS7. P-G eventually finished day 1 just 0.1 seconds off fifth, a brilliant effort, especially as he is in a privateer Skoda Fabia WRC.

Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson round out the top eight, the former still in contention and very much in the battle for P5, but someway off challenging for a podium.

"The set up was not exactly right in the morning so I couldn't go as fast as I wanted," said Henning. "We changed a few things in service and that made it better to turn in and get some good times in the afternoon, but then we had a bit of a problem with the gear selector towards the end of SS6 and had to use the manual shift. The team will get it sorted tonight, though, and we will push again tomorrow for some more places. I still think top three is possible."

Further down the order, Sebastien Ogier and Urmo Aava come in ninth and tenth, both slipping back in SS8, the latter losing around 25 seconds when he went off the road.

"It was disappointing to lose time after we hit a snow bank, because we were trying to be careful," said Aava. "I just missed my braking for a slow right corner and nosed into the bank; we had to get some spectators to help push the car out."

Of the rest, Citroen Junior Team men Evgeny Novikov and Conrad Rautenbach end day one in eleventh and twelfth, followed by Adapta's Mads Østberg and then P-WRC leader, Patrik Sandell.

Sandell has led the Production category from the word go and while he did come under pressure from Andreas Mikkelsen, he now lies more than 2 minutes up on Armindo Araujo, who is second.

Martin Prokop completes the P-WRC rostrum at this early stage, with Andis Neiksans fourth and Mikkelsen fifth after a mistake in Kongsvinger 2, which cost him over 3.5 minutes.

In terms of retirements the only major casualty was two-time P-WRC champion, Toshi Arai. Arai had to call it a day this morning due to an engine problem. Ironically he had already switched to a new unit prior to SS1, something that had landed him with a 5 minute penalty.

The action now continues on Saturday - and the second leg is centred north of Hamar, in the mountain region around Lillehammer. After re-starting at 06.20 hours, drivers face two identical loops of four stages covering 118.94km before the final overnight halt at 17.44 hours. SS10, the 24.36 km Mountain 1 test, begins at 07.53 hours [all times local].


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