Championship leader Mikko Hirvonen has taken the initiative on the Neste Oil Rally Finland this morning, the ninth round in the 2009 World Rally Championship.

Hirvonen, who was third fastest last night in the short Killeri super special, grabbed the lead in the first 'proper' stage, when he was 2.9 seconds up on Sebastien Loeb. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT man then increased his advantage to 7.1 seconds in SS3, when he posted his second quickest time in succession.

Although he was unable to match Loeb in SS4 and SS5, he was still third and second quickest respectively and thus returned to the mid-day service 3.6 seconds in front.

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"Now that the battle is on I don't feel as relaxed as I did yesterday, but that is to be expected," said Hirvonen, who is celebrating his 29th birthday today. "I've had a good morning but it is very tight at the top of the leaderboard.

"I thought the first two stages would be harder for me but, ironically, they were the two tests on which I was fastest. I quickly found a good rhythm and a good feeling and I'm happy with the way the morning went. I will make the suspension slightly stiffer for the repeat loop this afternoon."

Loeb meanwhile slipped to fourth in SS3, when he was 'only' sixth fastest. The Frenchman struck back however in SS4 and SS5 and was much happier with his Citroen C4 WRC after topping the times in Mokkipera and Palsankyla.

"It was hard to get in the fight this morning but now it is okay," said Loeb. "We started with different settings but we went back to the ones we used last year and now the car is very good."

Loeb's Citroen team-mate, Dani Sordo is next up, 8 seconds further back and the Spaniard had no complaints: "I know 110 per cent is not possible," Sordo pondered, "so maybe I am trying 100 per cent - the car settings are perfect."

Further down the order, Jari-Matti Latvala lies fourth and after his nightmare late exit in Poland he spent the morning re-building his confidence. Indeed he was especially delighted to emerge safely from SS4 - M?kkiper? - after crashing there in both 2007 and 2008.

"It has been a difficult stage in the past and now I feel more relaxed and can really start to concentrate on the rally," said Latvala. "It was a special feeling for me to finish that stage. The pressure went away and I felt I could breathe again.

"As a result of my mistakes in previous years I haven't driven these stages for the past two years so I was quite cautious. The news that Ford has committed to two further years in the WRC has given me confidence and I'm trying to focus on consistency here."

Mads Ostberg rounds out the top five, 20 seconds or so off Latvala, and narrowly in front of Munchi's Ford 'guest' driver, Matti Rantanen. Henning Solberg is also right in contention for fifth, and the trio are split by less than 5 seconds.

Henning however, wasn't happy with his pace on the first loop: "We're trying hard but the stages have been a bit more loose than what we expected and they are very slippery now. I am not very happy with my times so far this morning but there is no problem with the car, it's just me," explained the Stobart Ford man. "We will work at it though and try to improve the feeling for this afternoon."

Of the rest Jari Ketomaa is eighth, having lost time in SS5 when he stalled. Sebastien Ogier trails him followed by Britain's Matthew Wilson, Conrad Rautenbach and Khalid Al-Qassimi. Federico Villagra and Juho Hanninen complete the top 15 with Ferrari F1 star Kimi Raikkonen an impressive 20th overall on his WRC debut.

In the Junior World Rally Championship, Martin Prokop has dominated, setting the pace in four of the first five stages. He now leads 'wild card' runner Kalle Pinomaki by 6.6 seconds. Michal Kosciuszko lies third.

In terms of retirements there were two notable casualties - namely Citroen Junior Team's Evgeny Novikov and Citroen privateer Petter Solberg.

Novikov went off the road in SS2 and was unable to continue, while Petter, who had been running second, went off near the end of SS4. It is not yet known if they will re-start on Saturday under the SupeRally.

The action now continues at 13.02 hours local time, when all four of this morning's tests will be repeated. The day ends with a second run through the Killeri SSS.

More to follow later...