A thrilling opening day at the World Rally Championship decider in Great Britain ended with Ford World Rally Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lying second, just 5.3sec from the lead.
The Finns, in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, traded seconds with drivers' title
rivals Sebastien Loeb
and Daniel Elena through six speed tests in the muddy forests of mid-Wales, before journeying south to the Rally of Great Britain's Cardiff base Friday evening with the title outcome still in the balance.
Team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are ninth in another Focus RS WRC after struggling through virtually the entire day with only two-wheel drive on their car.
Just a single point separated the title protagonists going into this 12th and final round of the season. After Thursday night's start ceremony in the Welsh capital, drivers faced the long journey north to tackle two identical loops of three special stages covering 130.30km in the classic forests of central Wales.
The gravel tracks were muddy and slippery after rain throughout the week, and fog on Friday morning ensured all the ingredients for a classic Rally of Great Britain were in place.
As expected, Hirvonen and Loeb established themselves at the top of the leaderboard from the very start. Ford's 29-year-old Finn was second in all three tests during the opening loop to reach the short service halt in Builth Wells 8.9sec behind his rival. The team lowered the ride height on Hirvonen's car there and he won the first and last stages in the second loop to reduce the margin to 5.3sec as cars headed south for the overnight halt.
"It wasn't a perfect morning but it wasn't a disaster either," said Hirvonen. "I was too cautious and made some small mistakes. I slid too wide in some corners and perhaps I was trying to drive too hard. I felt confident but I knew I needed to make my driving neater because I couldn't afford to drop any more seconds. My driving was much better this afternoon and if I can keep that level tomorrow then I will be happy.
"We're two Finns in a rally car that are fighting for our lives. The battle is on. I wanted to end the day in close contact with Loeb and I've achieved that. The weather forecast for tomorrow is bad and I think we're going to get rain, fog and high winds in the morning. If that's the case then I have to trust my pace notes and push hard. I'm not scared of making a mistake," Hirvonen declared.
Latvala's hopes were dented on the opening stage in Hafren when a front left driveshaft broke, which in turn damaged the pipe containing the fluid for the front brakes.
The fluid leaked out leaving the 24-year-old Finn with no braking at the front as well as only rear-wheel drive. He dropped four minutes to reach Builth Wells service in 10th.
The brakes were repaired, but Latvala's Focus RS WRC did not have a replacement driveshaft onboard and regulations allowed teams to only use replacement parts that are carried in the rally car. He drove the afternoon with just rear-wheel drive, losing a further 2min 30sec.
"It was a frustrating morning," said Latvala. "After about 24km of the first stage I turned into a corner and the front left driveshaft broke and the car spun. I don't know how it happened. I had a few close escapes as a result of driving without brakes at the front and nudged a bank in the second test. Unfortunately we couldn't fix the car properly but at least we managed to repair the brakes.
"We'll make full repairs tonight and I'm looking forward to tomorrow," he added. "I enjoy these roads so I'll drive as fast as I can, try to get a good feel with the car and set good times."
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr lost more than 10 minutes on the morning's final test with a broken driveshaft in the team's other Focus RS WRC. Like his team-mate, Al Qassimi did not have a replacement in the rally car and although he left the Builth Wells service, the 37-year-old Emirati retired on the liaison section shortly afterwards.
Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said the pace at the top of the leaderboard was 'incredible'.
"Mikko enjoyed a great day and it's amazing to see the top two drivers competing at that pace on the opening day," he said. "We made some ride height changes to Mikko's car at lunchtime and that helped him win two stages this afternoon. It wasn't easy for Jari-Matti. A driveshaft joint failure cost him time, but he did a fantastic job with a car that was difficult to drive. I thought he would lose more time."
The second leg is the longest of the rally, mixing the long Rhondda test in the Vale of Neath with the traditional second day tests further north, near Brecon. After leaving Cardiff at 07:10, drivers face two loops of three identical forest stages, before returning to the Welsh capital for the final overnight halt at 20:18.