BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen leads the Rally Japan following the opening three stages this morning.

Hirvonen, who comes into the penultimate round in this year's World Rally Championship needing to take the maximum haul in order to keep his slim hopes of challenging for the 2008 drivers' title alive, grabbed P1 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.

"Everything felt good this morning so I pushed hard, although conditions were very slippery," said the Finn. "It was cold and muddy in the opening stage, so cold that I never really got any heat into the tyres, although the grip was still consistently good.

"The stages here are really tricky, slower than the Rally Japan tests we were used too in previous years, but I'm enjoying driving them. The surface is soft so there could be big ruts when we repeat the stages this afternoon."

Latvala meanwhile is second and he also enjoyed a strong start on his return to the Blue Oval's 'A' team, setting the second best times in SS1 and SS4 and the fourth quickest in SS2.

"I couldn't find a rhythm in the first two stages. I was pushing too hard and the car was going too sideways, but I really want to fight with Mikko," said Jari-Matti. "I changed the differential programme for the final stage and that really helped. The conditions were challenging with snow lying in the middle of the road in some sections of the first stage.

"There will be big ruts this afternoon so we'll raise the car's ride height to allow for that."

Francois Duval is next up and potentially gives Ford a clean sweep of the podium places at this very early stage. Despite now being regarded as a bit of an asphalt specialist, the Belgian was very competitive and was third quickest in two of the three stages. He lies 3.7 seconds off Latvala.

"It has been a good start to the rally for us and I am happy with the speed we have been setting," said Francois. "The problem has not been snow on the stages only the wet and this had made conditions slippery especially for me running down the order. I think it will be more rutted on the second pass this afternoon now the whole field has gone over the stages but OK this will make things difficult for everybody.

"The car has been performing really well but we will make some small setup adjustments in service because I know there is more I can push."

Further down the order, Sebastien Loeb is fourth, 2.5 seconds further back, followed by Dani Sordo and Stobart Ford's Matthew Wilson. Loeb had a slow start and was only sixth in SS1, but upped his pace in the subsequent tests and was second in SS2 and quickest in SS4.

"I tackled the first stage very cautiously because the conditions really were quite treacherous," the four-time world champion explained. "There was snow by the side of the road and I was worried that we might come across ice, too, so I took things steadily.

"The rest of the morning was a little more straightforward and less slippery. The gaps aren't that big at the moment, our car is going very well and we didn't make any mistakes. I would say this event has started pretty much as I expected."

Subaru's Petter Solberg and P-G Andersson round out the points' scorers, the former 25 seconds off the leader, and his talk of being able to challenge for the win pre-event already looks way too optimistic.

"It was a very tricky morning indeed," said 'Hollywood'. "The plan was mainly to stay on the lines. Being sixth on the road we found lot of mud on the track. I expect the second passage through the stages will be very difficult especially in slow corners where it's very soft and muddy inside."

Of the rest Chris Atkinson and Toni Gardemeister complete the top ten, followed by Munchi's Ford man Henning Solberg and Group N leader, Jari-Ketomaa.

Thus far there has only been one big retirement - namely Conrad Rautenbach, who went out in the opening test in his privately entered Citroen C4 WRC car. Federico Villagra also lost time in his Ford with clutch problems in SS4 dropping him outside the top 20.

In the Production Car World Rally Championship category, Eyvind Brynildsen took the lead in SS1 and ended SS4 5.4 seconds up on Evgeny Novikov. Toshi Arai is third, another 1.8 seconds further back.

The action now continues at 14.28 hours local time, when the morning loop with be repeated. The leg concludes with two runs through the short 1.49 kilometre Sapporo SSS.



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