BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen leads the Pioneer Rally Japan following a truncated opening leg on Friday, which was almost half the original scheduled distance.

Hirvonen, who comes into the penultimate round in this year's World Rally Championship knowing that it will be extremely difficult to keep his hopes of taking the 2008 drivers' title alive, grabbed top spot immediately and he completed the opening test 3.8 seconds up on his team-mate, Jari-Matti Latvala, who was 'best of the rest'.

The 28-year-old then increased his lead to 7.9 seconds in SS2 - the 11.10 kilometre Yuparo test, when he again set the pace, this time 2.1 seconds up on Sebastien Loeb. With the Isepo test struck of the itinerary due to heavy snow, competitors then moved straight to SS4 and with the third fastest time, Hirvonen ended the loop with a 6.9 second cushion.

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In the afternoon, Hirvonen was again on it and was quickest in SS5 and SS6, the latter stage stopped early after Francois Duval crashed out. Although the Belgian escaped uninjured, his co-driver, Patrick Pivato was not so lucky and had to be airlifted to hospital. He suffered a fractured pelvis and fractured tibia in the off and will require surgery tonight.

As a result of Duval's accident and the subsequent delays, SS8 was canned and with SS7 having already been axed due to snow, the opening day drew to a close with two runs through the Sapporo super special, where Mikko took another two stage wins to end the leg with six in total.

Hirvonen will now take a 26.2 second cushion into day two on Saturday: "It was a very strange day with many things happening," he reflected. "We had some fears in the end because of a puncture in the super special stage - we had to change the wheel in less than two minutes in order to start the second run without a penalty, but we made it.

"Tomorrow's stages are wider and faster. There was a lot of loose gravel on the surface during the recce so I hope it continues to rain tonight to dampen everything down because first in the start order won't be the best place to be otherwise. The stages will require a different rhythm from today and I hope I can find that immediately."

Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile concluded proceedings on course for the runners-up spot in the sister 'works' Ford and while he set some good times, he wasn't 100 per cent happy with his form.

"My position is good but it was an up and down day. I made no big mistakes but I wasn't totally satisfied with my driving," he admitted. "I couldn't find a rhythm in the first two stages this morning. I pushed too hard and the car was going too wide into corners. I changed the differential programme for the final stage and that really helped."

Sebastien Loeb is next up and having inherited third after Duval's off is now on course to claim his fifth world title. The Frenchman struggled in SS1 this morning, but bounced back in SS2 and then topped the times in SS3.

In the afternoon he was third in SS5 and SS6 - the final two 'proper' tests of the day - and following the somewhat chaotic Sapporo SSS, lies just 4.4 seconds off P2.

"Not an easy day ending with some misunderstandings with the marshals in the last two stages. They stopped us between the two passages in the Dome and we could not complete two laps in a row," he stated. "Let's be positive though, we are third tonight and it's going according to the plan.

"Of course I'm so sad that Patrick Pivato [Duval's co-driver] was injured. It's never funny to have these kinds of experiences. I would have preferred to fight for this provisional podium place. Tomorrow we will have to stay committed and concentrated. It is a big day on Saturday - and I expect the second leg stages to be very selective."

Further down the order, Subaru's Chris Atkinson is fourth, albeit 30 seconds off Loeb, while Petter Solberg rounds out the top five, only 1.7 seconds off his team-mate in the other Impreza WRC2008.

"The car was not right this morning so we lost a lot, but it was much better this afternoon and we were able to make up time," said Atkinson. "I had a lot of understeer this morning and after service it was less. It was enjoyable to drive. Okay the times are still not where we want them, but we didn't lose a lot of time to Sebastien this afternoon."

Matthew Wilson completes the top six for the Stobart Ford team and while he is not far off the Subaru's, he also has Per-Gunnar Andersson breathing down his neck, and is only 0.4 seconds up on the Swede.

"Well it has been quite an eventful day," said the Englishman. "It is good to finish the day sixth though and in a position to fight for a top-four spot. But OK we have seen what has happened today and there is a long way to go in this event."

Of the rest Toni Gardemeister is eighth and on course to take the final drivers' point followed by Munchi's Ford man Henning Solberg and Group N leader, Jari-Ketomaa in ninth and tenth respectively.

Thus far there have been three big retirements and in addition to Duval, day 1 also claimed Dani Sordo and Conrad Rautenbach.

Rautenbach was the first to go, when he slide off the road on the opening test in his PH Sport-run C4 WRC. Sordo went out in the afternoon, with turbo problems sidelining him in SS6. It is not yet known if the Spaniard will be able to rejoin on Saturday under the SupeRally. He had been running in the top five.

In the Production Car World Rally Championship category, Eyvind Brynildsen took the lead in SS1 and he held it until the Sapporo super specials, when he slipped back to third. Evgeny Novikov thus hold the class lead overnight, 5.3 seconds up on Toshi Arai, while Brynildsen is a further 11.2 seconds adrift.

The action now continues on Saturday and day two is the longest of the rally. After leaving Sapporo at 07.30, drivers tackle two identical loops of four stages near the town of Chitose and Tomakomai, before another two passes over the Dome super special stage. They reach the final overnight halt at 19.17 after 156.78km of competition [all times local].