BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen dominated the opening loop of the Rally Argentina on Friday, the fourth round in the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship.

Mikko was sensational on the opening stage, the 18.70 kilometre-run through La Cumbre-Agua de Oro 1 and despite thick fog and lots of sticky mud, he was 48.1 seconds up on his team-mate, Jari-Matti Latvala, who was 'best of the rest' in the sister Focus RS WRC07.

The Finn then inched further ahead in SS2, taking his second stage win in a row and while he was only fourth in SS3, he ended the loop with another quickest time to head into the mid-day service at Carlos Paz with a 50.8 second cushion.

"I couldn't see much in the first stage because of fog and visibility was down to 10 metres in places, but I'm not afraid to drive fast when I can't see," said Hirvonen. "I had no idea how good my speed was and at the finish my first words to Jarmo [Lehtinen - my co-driver] were 'we've either lost a minute or won a minute'.

"My pace notes worked really well and in fog that is so important. There was also a lot of rain and the stage was treacherous. The roads will be even muddier this afternoon but I need to continue at this pace."

Citroen's Sebastien Loeb meanwhile heads the chasing pack in his new-look Red Bull branded C4 WRC. The Frenchman was third quickest in SS1, then posted the second best time in SS2 and SS3, before ending the loop with a fourth best effort in San Marcos-Charbonier 1.

Chris Atkinson is third, 43 seconds further back in his Impreza and the Aussie conceded that the conditions were very tough: "Third is a good start after this morning but it's been a difficult start for everyone. It's very muddy and with the fog and the rain we couldn't see much," he explained.

"The surface is so loose and I'm not feeling totally comfortable on the mud and the ruts in the road so I can't attack as much as I'd like.

"This afternoon the stages will have got more rutted so the guys will make some changes to the car in service and hopefully we'll be able to push a little more on the repeat runs."

Petter Solberg is next up - fourth in the sister Impreza and 30.1 seconds off his team-mate, while Stobart Ford's Gigi Galli and Citroen #2 driver, Daniel Sordo are fifth and sixth, split by just 3.2 seconds.

"That was an incredible start to the rally and the first two stages were the most difficult I have ever seen," said Gigi. "This is a new challenge for us in Argentina because I have only done three stages on gravel in the Focus WRC so I am constantly learning a new driving style this morning especially in the wet. The hard-compound Pirelli tyre is holding up very well and hopefully the conditions will dry up for the stages this afternoon."

Further down the order, Munchi's man Federico Villagra and Stobart Ford's Henning Solberg complete the provisional points' scorers in seventh and eighth, while Suzuki's Toni Gardemeister and Matthew Wilson round out the top ten.

"Well it has been an interesting morning but I'm happy to be back in service without any problems," said Wilson. "The first stage today was extremely difficult with the fog, there was also a lot of mud on the stage but this wasn't a problem if you could see it. The grip was slightly inconsistent on the first two stages, but the on last two conditions dried up quite a lot which made it more enjoyable and our times were much better."

Of the rest Luis Perez Companc finished the loop in P11, with PWRC leader, Andreas Aigner twelfth in his Lancer, 27.3 seconds up on Marcos Ligato, who is second in the Production class and 14th overall. Conrad Rautenbach splits the two PWRC men in his PH-Sport-run C4.

Two works drivers' had major problems this morning - namely Per-Gunnar Andersson and Jari-Matti Latvala.

P-G retired his Suzuki SX4 WRC before the start of SS1 due to mechanical problems - possibly related to the engine or electronics. It is not yet known if he will be able to re-start on Saturday.

Jari had problems in SS2, when he rolled his Focus and lost over 9 minutes, dropping him from second to 30th. He now lies just outside the top 20, having made up some time in SS3 and SS4.

"I didn't enjoy the first stage and didn't feel comfortable going into the next test," he explained. "About 1km after the start I came to a flat left corner that tightened and I hit the bank. That bounced the car across the road and I rolled off the track at the next right corner.

"The car landed with Miikka [Anttila]'s side up against a small tree. Spectators helped us move the car off the tree and rolled it back onto its wheels before finding a small road that led back to the stage. The damage wasn't big, just a cracked windscreen and some body damage."

The action now resumes at 14.26 hours local time, when all four of this morning's stages will be repeated. The leg then concludes with the first run through the short 1.78 kilometre Estadio Cordoba super special.

More to follow later...


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