BP Ford Abu Dhabi team leader Mikko Hirvonen
has ended day one of the Neste Oil Rally Finland at the top of the leaderboard after a close duel with championship rival Sebastien Loeb.
Hirvonen, who was third fastest on Thursday night in the Killeri super special, took the lead in the first 'proper' test - 2.9 seconds up on Loeb. The Finn then topped the times again in Kruununpera 1 to increase his advantage to 7.1 seconds.
In the next two stages though Hirvonen was 'only' third and second fastest and with Loeb winning both SS4 and SS5, the Ford man saw his lead cut to 3.6 seconds heading into the mid-day service at Jyvaskyla.
The afternoon loop saw all four of the morning's tests repeated and it was very much a case of déjà-vu, with Hirvonen again quickest in Jukojarvi and Kruununpera, before Loeb responded in Mokkipera and Palsankyla.
As a result while Hirvonen initially increased his cushion to 5.2 seconds post-SS6 and then 7.6 seconds post-SS7, the margin came back down in SS8 and SS9. He will now take a 3.3 second lead into the second day, as Loeb took back another 0.7 seconds in the repeat run through the Killeri SSS.
"I'm leading my home rally on my birthday - things don't get much better," said Hirvonen, who turned 29 today. "This time last year I was 14sec behind Loeb so that's a big improvement. I'm feeling confident but I know that I must continue to push because he is only a few seconds away and won't give up. I prefer it that way because it's really enjoyable to be driving flat out and fighting for tenths of a second.
"Now that the battle is on I don't feel as relaxed as yesterday, but that was to be expected. I thought the first two stages of each loop would be harder for me but, ironically, they were the two tests on which I was fastest. I made a few small mistakes this afternoon but nothing serious. Tomorrow is a big, big day and I must be prepared."
Loeb meanwhile was on it all day, and would have been closer had it not been for a relatively slow time in SS3, when he was sixth quickest. The Frenchman settled into a good rhythm after that though and like Hirvonen notched up four forest stage wins (six in total if you include his SSS wins).
"It was a difficult start to the day," Loeb admitted. "It is always hard to get a good rhythm and last year I found it easier. But generally I had a good feeling and pushed really hard but Mikko is going very well."