BP Ford Abu Dhabi team leader Mikko Hirvonen has ended day one of the Neste Oil Rally Finland at the top of the leaderboard after a close duel with championship rival Sebastien Loeb.

Hirvonen, who was third fastest on Thursday night in the Killeri super special, took the lead in the first 'proper' test - 2.9 seconds up on Loeb. The Finn then topped the times again in Kruununpera 1 to increase his advantage to 7.1 seconds.

In the next two stages though Hirvonen was 'only' third and second fastest and with Loeb winning both SS4 and SS5, the Ford man saw his lead cut to 3.6 seconds heading into the mid-day service at Jyvaskyla.

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The afternoon loop saw all four of the morning's tests repeated and it was very much a case of d?j?-vu, with Hirvonen again quickest in Jukojarvi and Kruununpera, before Loeb responded in Mokkipera and Palsankyla.

As a result while Hirvonen initially increased his cushion to 5.2 seconds post-SS6 and then 7.6 seconds post-SS7, the margin came back down in SS8 and SS9. He will now take a 3.3 second lead into the second day, as Loeb took back another 0.7 seconds in the repeat run through the Killeri SSS.

"I'm leading my home rally on my birthday - things don't get much better," said Hirvonen, who turned 29 today. "This time last year I was 14sec behind Loeb so that's a big improvement. I'm feeling confident but I know that I must continue to push because he is only a few seconds away and won't give up. I prefer it that way because it's really enjoyable to be driving flat out and fighting for tenths of a second.

"Now that the battle is on I don't feel as relaxed as yesterday, but that was to be expected. I thought the first two stages of each loop would be harder for me but, ironically, they were the two tests on which I was fastest. I made a few small mistakes this afternoon but nothing serious. Tomorrow is a big, big day and I must be prepared."

Loeb meanwhile was on it all day, and would have been closer had it not been for a relatively slow time in SS3, when he was sixth quickest. The Frenchman settled into a good rhythm after that though and like Hirvonen notched up four forest stage wins (six in total if you include his SSS wins).

"It was a difficult start to the day," Loeb admitted. "It is always hard to get a good rhythm and last year I found it easier. But generally I had a good feeling and pushed really hard but Mikko is going very well."

Dani Sordo completes the provisional podium in the sister Citroen C4 WRC, although he is already over 15 seconds off the battle for P1. The Spaniard set top-four times in every single test and was more than happy to end up 10.1 seconds ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala.

"It has been a really good day for me today and the car is going well," Sordo stated. "I am feeling the pressure from Jari-Matti but we have a nice gap which I will try and preserve tomorrow."

Latvala spent the day re-building his confidence following his late exit in Poland last time out, which cost him and the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT second place. He opted for consistency and set a string of top-five stage times.

"A quite okay day for me," Latvala reflected, "and I am quite satisfied with my position. You can never relax though and tomorrow will be very important."

Further down the order Matti Rantanen is fifth and best of the rest on his 'guest' outing with the Munchi's Ford WRT. Rantanen moved up to P5 in SS6 this afternoon, when Mads Ostberg slipped back. Ostberg was also overhauled by Henning Solberg in SS7 and now lies seventh - around 20 seconds off Henning and Rantanen, who are split by just 2.6 seconds.

"I am happy with the day and am looking forward to getting back in one piece ready for tomorrow," said Rantanen.

Henning in contrast was not happy with his Focus again and complained about the set-up: "I will work harder and will try to pull it all together come Sunday. We changed the centre differential [in the mid-day halt] and the car is handling much better now," explained the Stobart Ford driver post-SS9.

Of the rest Jari Ketomaa is on course currently to secure the final drivers' point in his privately entered Subaru Impreza WRC, followed by Citroen Junior Team's Sebastien Ogier and Britain's Matthew Wilson, who are ninth and tenth respectively.

Conrad Rautenbach and Khalid Al-Qassimi round out the top twelve, with Federico Villagra 13th and then Juho Hanninen and Anton Alen 14th and 15th.

2007 F1 World champion Kimi Raikkonen isn't much further back and lies 17th on his debut in the WRC - sandwiched between Janne Tuohino and Patrik Flodin. The Finn has made an impressive start to the Rally Finland and was 15th fastest in the final two forest tests.

"I am enjoying this rally so far," said the Ferrari F1 star. "We are quick second time through and the Fiat Grande Punto S2000 is performing really well. The notes are the biggest challenge in this rally because you must have total faith in them. I am pleased with my performance."

In the Junior World Rally Championship, Martin Prokop took the lead last night and has managed to increase his cushion today, winning six of the eight forest stages. He now lies over 10 seconds up on 'wild card' runner Kalle Pinomaki and over a minute up on Aaron Burkart in third.

"No problems at all and the cars holding together very well," Prokop stated. "It is amazing what punishment these Citroen [C2 S1600] machines can take."

Yoann Bonato is fourth in the J-WRC with fellow Suzuki Swift S1600 man Michal Kosciuszko fifth and Luca Griotti sixth.

As for retirements, there were two main victims - namely Citroen Junior Team's Evgeny Novikov and Citroen privateer Petter Solberg. Novikov went off the road in SS2 and was unable to continue, while Petter, who had been running second, went off near the end of SS4. Both are expected to re-start on Saturday under the SupeRally.

The action now continues on Saturday with nine stages on the bill - and over 160 competitive kilometres. SS11, Leustu 1, is scheduled to start at 07.13 hours tomorrow morning.