Mikko Hirvonen admits it will be difficult to keep Sebastien Loeb behind him on the second leg of the Rally Portugal, despite pulling an 18 second gap over the championship leader over the first day.

Both Hirvonen and Loeb struggled with their early running order in the morning, although Hirvonen had the advantage when his rival dropped 20 seconds with an off on the opening stage of the day.

With Loeb winning only two stages, compared to Hirvonen's one, the gap has dropped marginally to 18 seconds, but the Frenchman's error may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as it leaves him third on the road on day two.

Instead, Hirvonen will lead through the first cycle of stages, which total 72.59 kilometres, the Ford driver admitting he is daunted by the task facing him.

"It's great to be leading and I will give everything tomorrow to try to retain that," he said. "I will be first in the start order with a lot of dust and gravel on the surface which will make it difficult. I don't know if my lead is big enough to offset that disadvantage, and I think start order will play a big part over the next two days, but I have defended my lead from the front before so it can be done.

Nonetheless, Hirvonen was happy to be ahead, even if he admits he hasn't quite hit his stride yet.

"This morning my pace notes were a little slow for these roads. I think that was a carryover from the previous round in Cyprus where the stages were much slower. I wasn't happy with my rear differential so we replaced it and that brought a big improvement."


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