Mikko Hirvonen had spoken in the build-up to the new season of being determined to be the man that ended Sebastien Loeb's reign of dominance in the World Rally Championship. Runner-up the last two years, last year agonisingly missing out by just a single point, the Finn is desperate to win his first championship and he made a strong statement of intent yesterday as he led by 8.4 seconds after the opening seven stages of Rally Sweden.
It had looked as if was going to be a familiar story when the Citroen of Loeb led after the fourth stage, but improved pace from Hirvonen saw the BP Ford Abu Dhabi man move to the top of the standings in the afternoon stages and hold on to his advantage. Hirvonen put his rapid speed down to technical changes. "We changed the car set-up a bit, not too much though; it's all about the small things," he said. "Overall it's not too bad."
Loeb's Citroen teammate Dani Sordo had led the rally overnight after winning Thursday's super special stage, which opened the event, but Loeb immediately put himself at the top of the timing screens as he went quickest in the opening two stages of the morning to build up a four second lead. Hirvonen went quickest on stage four to move upto second at the expense of Sordo, but he could do little to close the four second gap to Loeb.
But on stage five, which was a repeat of the second stage, Hirvonen set a cracking pace, 4.4 seconds quicker than anyone else in difficult conditions as the roads became rutted and difficult to navigate. Allied to a tentative from Loeb that saw him lose 10 seconds to the Finn, Hirvonen came out of the stage with a 6.7 second lead, although he said he had not enjoyed driving it. Loeb said: "There are lots of ruts with snow inside. I expected it and I knew I had no chance.
"I tried as much as I could, and took more risks in the second pass that I did earlier, but the time is not so good. I don't like these conditions." Loeb went quicker than Hirvonen on stage six, but the Finn hit back on stage seven to go quicker by three seconds and give himself a small advantage. Elsewhere, it was a frustrating day for Hirvonen's teammate Jari-Matti Latvala, who struggled to get to grips with the icy conditions and ended the day in fourth spot, 19.4 seconds behind third-placed Sordo and 31.6 adrift of Hirvonen.
He complained: "The rhythm is difficult to find here. I'm braking too early, not being brave enough in some corners." The Citroen Junior driver Sebastien Ogier impressed with some competitive times on his way to fifth place. It was a frustrating day for the third Ford car of Khalid Al Qassimi. The Ford driver went off on the second stage, losing almost two minutes in the process and accidentally delaying the following Kimi Raikkonen who was held up by the incident.
The Emirati driver though recovered to move back up the order from 39th to be 17th at the end of the seventh stage. Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One world champion, had made a solid start on his first rally since swapping to the series from single seater racing sitting in the top 12 for most of the day. But it all went wrong for the Finn on stage six as he lost more than 25 minutes after getting stuck on a snow bank and his hopes of a points finish are realistically over.
There was a second super special stage due to be held late last night and there are eight more stages today, with the rally finishing tomorrow afternoon. @Email:email@example.com