Ford World Rally Team driver Mikko Hirvonen celebrated his 29th birthday in style today as he and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen led the opening leg of Rally Finland from start to finish.
The Finns won four of the eight gravel speed tests in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car to
build a 3.3sec lead in this ninth round of the championship. Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are fourth.
Hirvonen, who leads the drivers' championship by one point with four rounds remaining, was third after last night's curtain-raiser. He took the lead by winning this morning's opening stage and stretched his advantage to 7.1s after also winning the next test. He reached the mid-leg service with a lead of 3.6s.
After stiffening the suspension settings on his Focus RS WRC, the afternoon loop was a carbon copy of this morning. Hirvonen was again quickest over the opening two stages, before nearest rival Sebastien Loeb
edged closer by winning the next two as the battle for the lead raged between them.
"I'm leading my home rally on my birthday – things don't get much better," said Hirvonen. "This time last year I was 14sec behind Loeb so that's a big improvement. I'm feeling confident but I know that I must continue to push because he is only a few seconds away and won't give up. I prefer it that way because it's really enjoyable to be driving flat out and fighting for tenths of a second.
"Now that the battle is on I don't feel as relaxed as yesterday, but that was to be expected. I thought the first two stages of each loop would be harder for me but, ironically, they were the two tests on which I was fastest. I made a few small mistakes this afternoon but nothing serious. Tomorrow is a big, big day and I must be prepared.
Latvala settled into fourth during a solid morning and the 24-year-old Finn was delighted to emerge safely from the Mokkipera stage after crashing there in both 2007 and 2008. "It has been a difficult stage in the past and it was a special feeling for me to finish that test. The pressure went away and I felt I could breathe again," he explained.
He remained in fourth during the afternoon and returned to Jyvaskylä 30.1s behind his team-mate, but only 10.1s behind third-placed Dani Sordo.
"As a result of my mistakes in previous years I haven't driven these stages for the past two seasons so I was quite cautious. I know tomorrow's roads better and will feel more confident. I've done what I was asked to do today and driven to help Mikko's title challenge. After my error on the last round it took time for me to relax but now I feel I'm nearly at 100 percent with my rhythm and confidence. My target is to overtake Sordo but he's driving well and there's no point in driving crazily to achieve that. I'm here to be a team player."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr are 12th in the team's other Focus RS WRC. "We had an interesting start on this morning's stages," commented Al Qassimi. "We started to lift the pace as the day went on but we really need more mileage under our belts. The roads here are some of the fastest around which obviously brings with it difficulties – you need to be fully committed through the fast corners and for that you need to have a true feeling for the car."