Mikko Hirvonen has taken the early initiative on Rally Poland - and after Sebastien Loeb crashed out, he is now in a great position to do some serious damage to the Frenchman's seven-point lead in the drivers' championship.

Hirvonen, who was quickest this morning in SS2 and SS3, grabbed the lead following the 11.34 kilometre Pianki 1 test.

He then saw his advantage increase to 2.4 seconds, when Loeb went off early on in Paprotki 1 - the longest stage of the event at 33.17 kilometres - and hit a tree stump.

The Frenchman was unable to continue. It is not yet known if he will be able to re-start on Saturday under the SupeRally.

"I want ten points from here and after Seb's accident I must think about the championship now," said Hirvonen, who is second in the standings. "I want to drive safely, but flat out - if such a thing is possible!

"After I saw Seb's car off the road I eased my pace because I didn't want to make the same mistake. The roads are damp and very, very fast.

"They're also soft in places so they may cut up during the second pass this afternoon."

Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile is 'best of the rest' in the sister BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT-run Focus RS WRC, having moved up from third to second after Loeb's second off in as many events.

Latvala was third quickest in the opening two tests, before topping the times in SS4, to pull ahead of Dani Sordo in third - and close the gap on his team-mate in P1.

"The roads are so fast that it took the first two stages for my brain to get used to the pace," Latvala explained. "Loeb crashed in a narrow area with lots of tree stumps and I was cautious through that section.

"The surface is soft in places and I expect the last two stages in the loop will be rutted and more challenging this afternoon.

"The grip changed constantly. When the surface was hard it was slippery and when it was softer and sandy then the grip was better. The crowds are huge - it's just like competing on my home rally in Finland."

Further down the order, after Sordo in third, Andreas Mikkelsen lies fourth after an impressive start in his privately entered Skoda Fabia WRC.

Petter Solberg, who led after the short super special on Thursday night, rounds out the top five, with Sebastien Ogier next up and sixth.

Stobart Ford duo Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson complete the provisional points' scorers at this stage, followed by Citroen Junior Team men Evgeny Novikov and Conrad Rautenbach.

Novikov had been running strongly and in fourth, but the Russian dropped back in SS4 after going off the road near the end. He later retired from the leg, promoting Rautenbach to P9 and 1997 European Rally champion and local hero, Krzysztof Holowczyc to tenth.

"This morning went well for us and we had a good start. It was fantastic to see lots of fans cheering for us," said Holowczyc, who is making a guest appearance under the Stobart Ford banner. "Some of the stages are packed with spectators, especially on the exciting sections with the jumps.

"We had a spin on the third stage and stalled the car. It took us a while to restart the engine as we were on a hill but apart from that the morning has been very good. I don't think that the stages this afternoon will be as rutted as we had been expecting so I am looking forward to it."

"The stages are nice, fast and fun to drive, but I'm not happy with the car at the moment. It is difficult to find a good set-up," added his team-mate, Henning.

"I tried a few things on the shakedown but I couldn't get it the way I wanted and it will take some time today to get settled in. The conditions are getting rutted and worse after every car now and I'm finding it quite difficult to get a good feeling."

Of the rest Mads Ostberg is just outside the top ten in eleventh, while Michal Bebenek is 12th and Maciej Oleksowicz 13th. Bebenek leads the Group N category from Oleksowicz by 22.5 seconds.

In the Junior World Rally Championship, Kevin Abbring is on top in his Renault Clio, 2.5 seconds up on Michal Kosciuszko's Suzuki Swift. Martin Prokop rounds out the JWRC top-three, 11.6 seconds further adrift, with Yoaan Bonato fourth and Luca Griotti fifth.

The action now resumes at 14.01 hours local time, when all three of this morning's tests will be repeated to conclude the opening leg.

More to follow then...

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