BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen set the pace on Thursday morning in the shakedown for the Rally Ireland, the opening round in the 2009 World Rally Championship.

Mikko completed the 2.87 kilometre test stage near Lisduff, 5.97 kilometres from the service park in Sligo, in 1 minute 38 seconds, 0.4 seconds up on pre-event favourite and five-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb.

"The morning went well, but the stage was very fast and narrow," said Seb. "It would have been easy to make a mistake. My car is competitive and we feel confident. As usual, our aim is to win, especially here, on the first round of the championship."

Chris Atkinson meanwhile was third, ahead of his debut outing with the Citroen Junior Team, 0.2 seconds off Loeb and 0.4 seconds up on Dani Sordo.

"The conditions were very slippery, but we're perfectly ready for the start," noted Atkinson. "I feel good in the car, although it's always difficult to know exactly where you stand until you've got at least the first stage behind you."

"We made two or three changes," added Sordo. "The conditions were very slippery, so we didn't take any risks. I can't wait for the rally to start and I would love to kick off the year with a podium finish."

Further down the order, Jari-Matti Latvala was fifth, followed by Stobart Ford duo Matthew Wilson and Urmo Aava and Khalid Al-Qassimi.

Henning Solberg and Conrad Rautenbach rounded out the top ten, with Sebastien Ogier eleventh.

"This morning was just the shakedown. The test stage was very greasy and quite a handful," noted Ogier, who recently won the Rallye Monte Carlo. "I think there's a good chance we will see some big gaps open up on this event. For the time being, the main thing for us is to find our marks."

The Rally Ireland now continues later on today with the ceremonial start at 19.30 hours at Enniskillen Castle.

The action then begins proper on Friday with eight stages on the bill, totalling around 165 competitive kilometres. SS1, the 22.25 kilometre run through Glenboy 1, begins at 08.13 hours [all times local].

Leading shakedown times:

1. Mikko HirvonenBP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC 081min 38.0secs M
2. Sebastien LoebCitroen Total WRT C4 WRC 1min 38.4secs M
3. Chris AtkinsonCitroen Junior Team C4 WRC1min 38.6secs MT
4. Daniel SordoCitroen Total WRT C4 WRC1min 39.0secs M
5. Jari-Matti LatvalaBP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC 081min 39.7secs M
6. Matthew WilsonStobart Ford Focus RS WRC 081min 39.9secs A8
7. Urmo AavaStobart Ford Focus RS WRC 081min 40.9secs MT
8. Khalid Al QassimiBP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC 081min 41.1secs A8
9. Henning SolbergStobart Ford Focus RS WRC 081min 41.4secs MT
10. Conrad RautenbachCitroen Junior Team C4 WRC1min 41.7secs MT
11. Sebastien OgierCitroen Junior Team C4 WRC1min 42.4secs A8

M - denotes Manufacturer entry.
MT - denotes Manufacturer Team entry.

all times unofficial



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