Ford World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen stretched their overnight lead during a wet opening to the second leg of Rally Finland early this morning.
Hirvonen celebrated his 29th birthday by building a 3.3s lead yesterday, and the Finn widened his advantage
to 10.9s by winning the opening three speed tests south-west of the rally base of Jyvaskyla in his Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.
Eighty-six of the original 90 starters left Jyvaskyla, 16 of those competing under SupeRally rules having retired yesterday. They face a long and daunting day with more than 14 hours behind the wheel and 166.87km of competitive driving split between nine fast and flowing gravel special stages.
Hirvonen eked out his lead during the 21.35km Leustu and the 20.94km Himos stages before dominating the 14.95km Surkee to add an extra 4.0sec to his lead over Sebastien Loeb
"I thought, and hoped, it would rain," said Hirvonen. "It has made the roads softer and improved the grip so it's not as slippery as yesterday. The stages are fast and, with such good grip, it's a fantastic feeling to drive flat out. I could drive a little faster if I needed to but I'm comfortable at the moment. I need to be careful during the second pass in case the roads are rutted and I need to go out and drive with the same rhythm to try to extend the lead.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila remain fourth in their similar Focus RS WRC despite a stomach upset that left 24-year-old Latvala feeling weak.
"I started feeling ill about an hour before I got up," he explained. "It feels like a fever and I seem better when I'm out in the fresh air rather than inside the car. I've not eaten anything this morning so I feel quite weak. It was hard driving like this but I found a good rhythm and made no mistakes and if I can keep this pace then I have a chance of catching Dani Sordo," said Latvala, who is 8.3sec behind the Spaniard.
Anttila added: "In the stages Jari-Matti doesn't feel so bad because he has an adrenaline rush, but on the liaison sections he is finding it tough."
Both drivers will increase their car's ride height and stiffen the suspension springs for the second pass over the same roads. Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lie 11th in the team's other Focus RS WRC.