BP Ford team leader, Marcus Gronholm has ended the opening leg of the Neste Oil Rally Finland on Friday on top and on course to win his home round for the sixth time in seven years.
Although Sebastien Loeb took the early lead following the first run through the spectator super special at the Killeri trotting track on Thursday night, it was Gronholm who dominated as the crews headed into the forests for the first loop of tests on Friday morning, where heavy rain greeting the 101 starters.
Indeed the Finn was 8.5 seconds up on his team-mate, Mikko Hirvonen through the opening 24.98 Lankamaa stage [SS2]. He was also quicker through the 11.82 km Laukaa stage [SS3], just 0.1 seconds up on Hirvonen. Gronholm then claimed a clean sweep of the morning stages by flying over the famous jumps of the 7.57 km Ruuhimaki test [SS4], 0.9 seconds faster than his closest rival, Loeb. Heading into the mid-day service he enjoyed an 11.7 second lead.
Although Loeb won the next two tests [SS5 and SS6], Gronholm was second quickest through both and actually extended his overall advantage to 13 seconds. He then proceeded to put in a charge through SS7 and in dry conditions increased his cushion to 17.2 seconds following Vellipohja 2. However rain once again descended on SS8 - Mokkipera 2 - and while Loeb got through in the dry, most of the other competitors were not so luckily, Gronholm having to settle for the second best time, 5.3 seconds slower.
Following the repeat run through the Killeri super-special [SS9], Marcus will go into the second day 12 seconds in front.
Loeb meanwhile reckoned that he had been overly cautious on the first loop, although he made up for that in the afternoon winning three of the four 'proper' tests. The Kronos driver was the only one, other than Gronholm, who won a stage and as such it is no surprise he finished up in second, his closest challenger.
BP Ford number two driver, Hirvonen was right up there with Gronholm early on, however he slipped back as the leg progressed and eventually ended the day more than 40 seconds off the lead and 30 seconds behind Loeb. Mikko reckoned he had pushed too hard in the middle loop and although he was third through SS7, he could only post the seventh best time in SS8, a stall at the start costing him valuable seconds.
Petter Solberg finished the day just under 10 seconds off the final place on the rostrum, the Subaru ace posting some solid times, but generally speaking, unable to match Gronholm and Loeb. It appears that the Impreza is still not quick enough to match the Focus or the Xsara, despite all the work the Banbury-based squad have done over the summer.
Further-down the order, Henning Solberg started off a bit slow but has improved as the day went on, managing to post the third best time on both runs through Mokkipera. He is though some way off his brother, about a minute further back in his OMV-backed Peugeot 307.
The second works Subaru entry is next up - Chris Atkinson sixth overall. The Aussie was in the top five throughout much of the day until his engine began to overheat in the third loop in SS7. In a rutted section Atkinson unluckily coated his car's radiator in mud and gravel and the engine's control systems automatically cut power to keep the temperature under control. As such he was only 14th fastest and lost a good 30 seconds. He ended the day 29.9 seconds off Henning Solberg.