BP Ford's Mikko Hirvonen concluded day 1 of the Rally Japan on Friday on top having seized the lead in the afternoon loop.

Mikko began the opening leg with the fourth best time in SS1, before moving up to third overall in SS2 and then second in SS4, following the retirement of his team-mate, Marcus Gronholm.

Heading into the mid-day service he trailed Ford 'B' team member, Jari-Matti Latvala by 5 seconds.

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Hirvonen though put in a push in the afternoon, overhauling Latvala in SS7, when he posted his first stage win of the event. Mikko then proceeded to pull away from Latvala and Sebastien Loeb in SS7 and SS8 and following the two runs through the Obihiro super special stages ended the leg with a 10.3 second advantage.

The BP Ford number two driver was happy with his performance: "It's been a good day. A ten seconds lead is something but for sure it's not enough," he noted. "Tomorrow is the hardest day with the longest stage of the event and lots of mileage with the same tyres."

Loeb meanwhile, who now looks well placed to take the lead in the drivers' championship after Marcus' error, moved up into second in the penultimate test.

The Frenchman though wasn't overly pleased happy and complained of understeer: "We can say, on one side it has been a good day because we have now a good chance to lead the championship after this rally but I'm not satisfied with my driving. The set up of the car is not perfect. There is understeer and I cannot keep the car in line," revealed the Citroen man.

Latvala for his part was delighted to end the day on course for the final place on the podium and the fact he is also only 13.7 seconds off the lead - and only 3.4 seconds off the runners-up spot - bodes well.

The Finn set good stage times throughout the leg, posting top-three efforts in every single stage bar one.

Daniel Sordo was next up in fourth, having got the better of Latvala's Stobart Ford team-mate, Henning Solberg in SS5.

Dani then proceeded to inch away in his Citroen C4 WRC ending the day 7.8 seconds up on the Norwegian, who is making his debut in Japan this weekend.

"I'm happy both with the car and with my driving on gravel especially here where the roads are so difficult," noted the Spaniard.

Further down the leaderboard, OMV Kronos Citroen's Manfred Stohl had a solid day and brought his Xsara home in sixth spot, albeit more than 40 seconds behind Sordo and Henning. Manfred reported no problems and was content with his pace.

Subaru's Xavier Pons and Munchi's team leader, Luis Perez Companc round out the top eight, although the former said his Subaru was 'difficult' to drive.

At least Pons completed the leg though for the Subaru WRT, the same could not be said of his team-mates, Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson. Both had problems in the second loop and retired from the leg.

Petter suffered from a gear selection problem after SS5 and had to stop, while Atkinson crashed out in the next test.

The Aussie will not be able to re-start on Saturday as his Impreza suffered too much damage.

Gronholm will also not be able to re-join the fold on day 2, as his off in SS4, when he hit a tree stump, damaged the roll cage and as such he cannot continue.

Petter however will be back out, albeit now way out of contention, in 64th place overall, more than 20 minutes off the final place in the top ten, which is currently held by Federico Villagra.

Villagra is on course for the final manufacturers' point in the #2 Munchi's Ford WRT car, 35 seconds behind Stobart Ford third driver, Matthew Wilson, who is ninth.

In the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship category, Fumio Nutahara ended the day on top, having inherited the lead in SS7, when runaway PWRC championship leader, Toshi Arai ran into problems. It is not yet known if Arai will be able to continue or not.

Nutahara enjoyed a trouble-free day in his Lancer and in the end finished up more than 50 seconds up on Gabriel Pozzo.

Armindo Araujo completes the provisional PWRC podium, a further 20 seconds or so back, while Evgeniy Vertunov came in fourth, followed by Takuma Kamada and Leszek Kuzaj.

The action now continues on Saturday. The second leg is the longest of the rally and is based slightly further west than Friday's two loops.

After a 05.05 hours start competitors face a daunting 14 hours behind the wheel before the day finally ends at 19.05 hours [all times local]. They face two identical loops of four tests before two more passes over the Obihiro super special stage in the evening - a total of 146.68 kilometres of competition.