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.

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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.

Of the rest, the only other significant runner still going is Marcus Gronholm. Gronholm began the day in P1 after having won the two super specials on Thursday night. However it all went wrong for the Finn just 5 kilometres from the start of the first run through Murray North [SS3], when he rolled his Focus. Although the car did not suffer mechanical damage, the accident cracked the windscreen and broke both side windows - costing him over 10 minutes and dropping him down the leader-board. Although he and co-driver, Timo Rautiainen taped up the windows as best they could, it was impossible to prevent choking brown dust from infiltrating the cockpit and they had to tackle another 70 kilometres of competition - SS4, SS5, SS6 and SS7 - before returning to the mid-day service for repair.

Gronholm finished the morning in 40th place overall and although he made up ground in the afternoon and won the final two 'proper' tests, he is still a long way off third position - and the six drivers' points he needs to keep his title hopes alive.

Of the other 'works' drivers, five others hit problems' - and unlike Marcus they were forced to retire from the leg. Subaru's Chris Atkinson was probably the most significant retirement from the leg. The Aussie seized the lead after Gronholm's error in SS3 and he then proceeded to build up a 13.4 advantage winning SS3, SS4 and SS5. Atkinson though went off the road in SS6 and beached his Impreza. The Aussie slid wide on a left hand corner and bumped two wheels into some undergrowth and loose sand. Although he and co-driver Glenn Macneall and a handful of spectators did their best to rock the car back onto the stage, their efforts were curtailed when the hot exhaust pipe ignited a small brush-fire. The second run through Murray North was therefore cancelled with nominal times awarded to those drivers' that did not complete the test.

Earlier in the day, SS3 claimed two other scalps in addition to Gronholm, namely Daniel Sordo and Matthew Wilson. Sordo went out when his Kronos Citroen Xsara WRC car suffered gearbox problems, while Wilson retired after hitting a rock. The impact broke a front-right driveshaft and track-control arm.

Wilson's Stobart VK team-mate, Luis-Perez Companc didn't get much further either - Companc went out in the next test, SS4, when his Ford Focus slid off the road, rolled over and came to rest against a tree. OMV Peugeot's Henning Solberg was the only other big casualty - Henning went out in SS6, when he was caught out on a left hand corner and rolled his Peugeot 307 WRC car 50 metres off the stage. He had been sixth overall.

The action now continues on Saturday - the route for leg two will take the crews to the infamous Bannister stages south-east of Perth, before they repeat the Flynns and Beraking tests in the afternoon and then head for a fifth and sixth go through the Perth City Super Special in the evening. The second leg begins at 09.20 hours local time, with SS12, the first run through the 17.71 kilometre Bannister North test.