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Japan - day 1: Hirvonen lays down marker.

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.

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."



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