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Rally Portugal - day 1: Hirvonen in charge

3 April 2009

Mikko Hirvonen has defied his early running order to emerge from the opening leg of the Rally Portugal with a comfortable 15 second lead over Dani Sordo having managed to stay error free throughout the day.

The Finn ran second on the rutted gravel stages, but while he was only able to pull off a single stage win out of six, he was one of the few to avoid any dramas.

A positive ending to what has been an otherwise trying day for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team, Hirvonen grabbed the lead at the end of the afternoon's first stage when Dani Sordo repeated team-mate Sebastien Loeb's earlier error on the same stage by overshooting just a few hundred metres in.

Dropping almost twenty seconds, it was a short and sweet time at the top for Sordo, who himself only took the lead after SS4 when Jari-Matti Latvala suffered, what he described as, the biggest crash of his career.

The Finn had been a comfortable ten seconds up on Sordo after the first three stages but misjudged a slow corner on a blind crest, Latvala clipping a bank and being catapulted over the crash barrier. Although his car rolled several times, both he and co-driver Mikko Anttila were unhurt in the accident – his reputation, however, could take some repairing…

With Sordo making a mistake on SS5 and Marcus Gronholm dropping time too, it meant Hirvonen was able to leap from fourth to first in just two stages, an advantage he eked out to 15 seconds by the end of the day, despite a quick time for Sordo on SS6.

The flip side is that it is now his turn to tackle the three opening stages of the rally tomorrow as the first driver on the road. By contrast, Loeb sits a relatively comfortable third, 18 seconds behind after an unusually inconsistent day for the Frenchman.

Having lost time with an error at the start of SS2, Loeb managed two fastest stage times on SS4 and SS7, although rather more average times between them mean he hadn't clawed back as much as he would have liked from his initial faux pas.

Nonetheless, he is well placed tomorrow, as is Gronholm, who looked set to end his first day of WRC competition for well over a year in second, only to drop 22 seconds on SS7 and slip to fourth. Having spent the day getting used to the Prodrive prepared Subaru Impreza, he remains less than a minute off the lead.

Sat on the fringes of the 'top five' in terms of stage times, Petter Solberg nonetheless sneaks into fifth following Latvala's retirement after a competitive day that continues to belie his ageing Citroen Xsara.

Never lower than sixth throughout the day, Solberg ended leg one with a headline-grabbing second quickest time, to actually shadow Gronholm by a mere 16.3secs heading into day two.

Still, Solberg will need to keep an eye on Sebastien Ogier, who significantly picked up his pace during the afternoon to move up from eighth to sixth position, dispatching Matthew Wilson and Evgeny Novikov along the way. A third best time on SS5 was his crowning moment, as he now sits just 20secs behind Solberg.

Wilson remains in contention too, ten seconds adrift, while he has shaken off the advances of Novikov, whose pace cooled in the afternoon after a quick start this morning. It means he is just 0.1secs ahead of Henning Solberg who, having recovered from his earlier brake problems, was back up to speed in this afternoon.

Elsewhere, Mads Ostberg is currently running on his own with the Adapta Subaru in tenth, over a minute behind Solberg and almost a minute up on Conrad Rautenbach, who is 11th. Federico Villagra is the only other manufacturer entry still going strong in 12th after Khalid Al-Qassimi hit problems on SS7 and dropped to 20th.

An eventful day in PWRC saw several drivers hit problems to leave local driver Armindo Araujo in the lead and in 13th overall. However, his lead is as much to do with not making a mistake as expected front runners, Patrik Sandell, Nasser Al-Attiyah, Bruno Magalhaes and Patrik Flodin all hit problems

Al-Attiyah's loss was particularly disappointing as he had been a minute ahead of the competition. Flodin also lost a minute, but Al-Attiyah's retirement means he is just 14secs behind Araujo. Norway's Eyvind Brynildsen is third.


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