BP Ford's Mikko Hirvonen
has ended the opening day of the Rally Australia, the fourteenth round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship, on top - after a day in which six of the ten WRC 'works' drivers' had major problems.
Hirvonen took the lead briefly this morning in his Focus WRC car, after Chris Atkinson
went off in SS6. However Petter Solberg
nipped in front in SS7, before Mikko took back the top spot on SS9. Following the third and fourth runs through the Perth City Super special [SS10 and SS11], the Finn will now go into the overnight halt with a solid 26.2 second advantage over 'Hollywood'.
Although Mikko conceded that he found the conditions difficult this morning, he found his feet a bit more in the afternoon and was second quickest through SS8 and SS9, the final two 'proper' tests of the day.
The 26-year-old will now be determined to hang onto the lead on Saturday and Sunday and should he remain in P1, he will clinch his first ever win in the WRC - although admittedly there is a long, long way to go yet, with 120 competitive kilometres in wait on day two and 103 competitive kilometres on day three.
Petter meanwhile should definitely not be discounted and the Norwegian will be just as determined, especially as he and Subaru have had such a difficult year. Solberg will certainly have the pace to put Hirvonen under pressure on Saturday as his two stages wins in SS6 and SS7 on day one showed. He also has a lot more experience of the Perth stages than his Finnish rival, not to mention having already got through the 'mental barrier' that precedes securing that first win.
Kronos Citroen's Xavier Pons is next up in third, the Spaniard currently on course for his first ever WRC podium finish. Pons was nominated in preference to 1995 World Rally champion, Colin McRae - who got the call-up for the last round in Turkey - and the youngster has gone well, although admittedly he has benefited from the misfortunes that hit a number of the other WRC drivers.
Pons will have to watch his back on Saturday though, especially as OMV Peugeot Norway WRT driver, Manfred Stohl is just 8.2 seconds behind in his 307. Pons and Stohl both had a trouble-free day - pretty much.
Further-down the order, six Production Car WRC runners round out the top ten, with local star, Dean Herridge fifth in his Group N Subaru Impreza WRX. Herridge, who is currently poised to take the PCWRC win, is 3.3 seconds up on reigning PCWRC champion, Toshi Arai, while Mirco Baldacci and Aki Teiskonen are seventh and eighth respectively, followed by Jari-Matti Latvala
and Marcos Ligato.
Fumio Nutahara and Sebastian Beltran are just outside the top ten, in eleventh and twelfth, the former the only driver that realistically still stands a chance of challenging Nasser Al-Attiyah for the PCWRC title - although a few other drivers' still have a mathematical chance, chiefly Teiskonen and Baldacci.