The first day of action at Rally Great Britain, the title-deciding final round of the WRC championship, ended with Sebastien Loeb
enjoying only a few seconds' lead on his rival for the 2009 crown, Mikko Hirvonen. Both men spent the day racing at furious speeds across the classic gravel
roads of Wales, trading seconds back and forth.
However, at the completion of Day One's concluding stage – the repeat passage over the 28 kilometres of the Myherin run – it was the Ford team's Mikko Hirvonen who set a fastest time of 15:39.0, taking 1.1sec out of his nemesis' overall lead.
"It was so slippery in there and we had a lot of moments, but now it's going well," Hirvonen said. "My driving wasn't perfect this morning but it's been better this afternoon; now I must keep this up tomorrow."
After coming out fastest of the morning stages, Loeb found his afternoon harder. "I don't really understand why I was slower," he said. "The important thing is I'm in front for the moment. We'll see what we can do tomorrow."
Petter Solberg was third-quickest at the wheel of his Citroen C4 and again managed to take a few tenths out of his rally rival, the Citroen team's Dani Sordo, although the overall gap between the Norwegian and the Spaniard remains close.
"I'm very, very happy with third place," Solberg gladly reported. "We have tried to work on the balance and set-up, but it's getting better and better.
We are close to the pace of the guys ahead and they are fighting for a world championship!"
"I'm happy with my pace, the car is perfect, there's a good battle between me and Petter and I'm enjoying that," Sordo said, visibly impressed by the pace set by the Hirvonen/Loeb duel: "The guys ahead are way, way away!"
Next on this stage were the Stobart Ford duo of Henning Solberg – who dealt with an engine misfire issue all day – and Matthew Wilson. Conrad Rautenbach signed the seventh-fastest result on this stage aboard his Citroen Junior team car, beating Jari-Matti Latvala and his impaired Ford Focus RS WRC which has been functioning as a rear-wheel drive since this morning.
Sebastien Ogier had to deal with a puncture during the second half of today's closing stage, an issue which broke the Citroen Junior Team driver's string of successive fifth-place finishes. Although the Frenchman managed to hold on to his position in the general standings, much of his advantage was lost.
At the conclusion of Day One in Wales, Sebastien Loeb
's overall lead on Mikko Hirvonen stands at 5.3sec with ten stages to go. Petter Solberg is over a half-minute away; his place on the provisional podium's third step remains under pressure from Dani Sordo, only 1.1sec behind. Sebastien Ogier's puncture sees him fall nearly two minutes further back, 8.8sec ahead of Henning Solberg.
Day Two of Rally Great Britain resumes Saturday morning at 08:35 with the first of six stages appearing on this showdown's schedule.
The battle between maiden title hopeful Hirvonen and five-time veteran Loeb for the 2009 drivers' crown is a furiously-paced one, with both contenders obviously enjoying themselves as the pressure mounts and the prize nears. Hirvonen may be a few seconds behind, but tomorrow Loeb will be opening the gravel roads...