Hirvonen thrives on home soil

The Finn expects the rally to go to the wire with world champion Sebastien Loeb snapping at the Abu Dhabi Ford driver's heels after topsy-turvy day.

Mikko Hirvonen competes on the second day of the Rally of Finland yesterday.
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JYVASKYLA // Championship leader Mikko Hirvonen held the edge on an exciting opening day of the Rally Finland yesterday as he built up a narrow advantage over his title rival Sebastien Loeb. The BP Abu Dhabi Ford driver held a slender four second lead over Loeb after the ninth stage of his home rally following a day that had seen fluctuating fortunes for the duo.

Hirvonen, who leads the standings by a point, had started yesterday in third after Thursday's opening special stage, but he roared to the front as he opened up a 7.1secs gap over Petter Solberg, with Loeb down in fourth place. But the French world champion, who is aiming for a sixth successive title, hit back with the fastest time on the next two stages to reduce Hirvonen's lead to 3.6secs, while the privateer Solberg was forced to retire his Citroen due to two punctures.

It was a repeat in the second loop of stages as Hirvonen was fastest on the first two to stretch his lead to 7.6secs, before Loeb hit back by being quickest on stages eight and nine to cut the gap to Hirvonen to four seconds. Hirvonen who was celebrating his 29th birthday yesterday, is expecting the battle to go all the way down until tomorrow's final stage. "So far it's going okay but Sebastien is pushing hard now," Hirvonen said. "At the moment it looks like we'll be close all the way though. Today has been OK but two of the stages are difficult for me and now Sebastien is coming up fast. I made two or three small mistakes, and it wasn't so good this afternoon, but I think I can pull away from him tomorrow. That's the plan."

In third place, 20.3secs adrift of Hirvonen, is the second Citroen of Dani Sordo, while Jari-Matti Latvala had an understated start in his BP Abu Dhabi Ford car, a further 9.2secs back. Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi had a solid start as he finished the day 12th and he is looking to find more speed in the slower corners. "I am happy because I started off the pace a little, but we have lifted our speed during the day," the Emirati driver said. "We have been fast on the big jumps and the high speed corners, but in the medium low-speed corners we are losing a little time and that is something I want to learn from and improve."

The Ferrari Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen made an impressive debut in the World Rally Championship in his Fiat, performing well as he completed stage nine in 17th place overall. One more stage of day one was scheduled to be held last night, with nine more today, and the final four being held on Sunday. gcaygill@thenational.ae