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ISTANBUL -- An exciting opening leg of the Rally of Turkey ended with both BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team crews well-placed in a cluster of six competitors battling for top billing in this fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen lie third in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, just 12.2sec from the lead, while team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are 27.5sec from the lead in sixth.
The pace at the head of the field was blistering with average speeds topping 126kph this afternoon. It meant the six pairings traded tenths of a second and swapped positions on the leaderboard on every speed test. Three drivers, including Hirvonen, led the rally during the nine special stages covering 98.42km north-east of Istanbul, in what many regarded as a 'hors d'oeuvres' ahead of tomorrow's long and demanding mixed surface leg.
After five previous WRC encounters near Antalya in southern Turkey, the rally has moved to Istanbul, the world's fifth largest city, for 2010. Huge crowds packed the city's Sultanahmet Square yesterday evening for the start ceremony in the shadow of the famous Blue Mosque. After a boat trip across the Bosphorus River to return drivers and cars from the European side of the city to the Asian quarter where the rally is based, the action began in earnest today with two loops of four gravel stages close to the Black Sea coastline. The day ended with an asphalt test in the city, on the banks of the Bosphorus.
Hirvonen led after two stages before settling into third after the morning loop, just 3.0sec from the lead. The 29-year-old Finn maintained his consistent pace this afternoon to retain his top three spot. "I had a good day and I'm happy with my placing. I'm unsure what will be the best position in the start order tomorrow because I don't know if the early cars will sweep away the gravel, but third is certainly OK if they do. Anything is possible with such small time gaps between the leaders," he said.
"The morning stages were rocky and Pirelli's tyres did a great job. The speeds were so high that when you hit a rock you almost expected the impact to puncture a tyre, but that didn't happen. I expected it to be even rockier this afternoon but the stones were cleared during the first pass. I had much more grip and it wasn't as hard on the tyres," he added.
Latvala slotted into second after the opening two stages, as the BP Ford Abu Dhabi squad held the top two places. The 25-year-old Finn lost his rhythm on the next two tests to end the morning in sixth, just 12.6sec from the lead. He climbed to fourth during the afternoon, eventually ending the day in the thick of the six-car battle.
"I lost my rhythm after the first two stages this morning and didn't drive at my best," said Latvala. "There were rocks everywhere, even in the braking areas, and many drivers had problems so I had to be careful. Perhaps that was on my mind too much. This afternoon was better and I was happier with my performance. I dropped more time than I hoped but it means that I have a good start position for tomorrow, although it's difficult to say how much the roads will clean.
"Tomorrow will be tough. Most stages have both asphalt and gravel roads which will make it hard to find a good rhythm. Temperatures were warmer today then we expected and if it's the same tomorrow it will be demanding for the tyres. Anyone who pushes too hard on the abrasive asphalt could damage their tyres for the gravel and lose grip. I will need to be clever and not push all the time," he added.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson was pleased with the team's performance. "We're in a good position for tomorrow, which I believe will be an extremely challenging day. It has been a long time since a WRC rally contained mixed surface stages of the type we'll see tomorrow and it will be interesting to see how the drivers cope with the problems those tests will pose," he said.
News from other Ford teams
Munchi's Ford drivers Federico Villagra and Jose Diaz are seventh in a Focus RS WRC, two places ahead of Stobart M-Sport Ford's Matthew Wilson and Scott Martin. Wilson hit some rocks on the opening stage and dropped time this afternoon when he bent a steering arm, knocking his car's steering out of line. Team-mates Henning Solberg and Ilka Minor retired on the opening stage when they hit a tree stump and broke a steering arm. Ironically Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino retired in an identical incident at the same point. Both will return tomorrow under SupeRally rules.
The second day is the longest of the rally as drivers face 145.82km of competition. Competitors leave Pendik at 09.00 and face two identical loops of four stages in a route which again heads north to the Black Sea coastline. Although predominantly gravel, six of the eight tests also contain asphalt and 75 per cent of the opening stage of each loop is on sealed surface roads. The gravel sections are expected to be rockier than today. Drivers return to Pendik for the final overnight halt at 19.43.
Leaderboard after Day 1
1. S Ogier/J Ingrassia FRA Citroen C4 55min 32.7sec
2. D Sordo/M Marti ESP Citroen C4 55min 38.2sec
3. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 55min 44.9sec
4. P Solberg/P Mills NOR Citroen C4 55min 51.2sec
5. S Loeb/D Elena FRA Citroen C4 55min 57.6sec
6. J-M Latvala/M Anttila FIN Ford Focus RS 56min 00.2sec
7. F Villagra/J Diaz ARG Ford Focus RS 57min 15.6sec
8. K Räikkönen/K Lindström FIN Citroen C4 57min 23.3sec
9. M Wilson/S Martin GBR Ford Focus RS 57min 37.3sec
10 O Tanak/K Sikk EST Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 00min 31.8sec
Stage 1: 1. P Solberg 9min 30.4sec; 2. Latvala + 0.1; 3. Loeb + 0.5; 4. Sordo + 0.7; 5. Hirvonen + 1.5; 6. Ogier + 2.2.
Stage 2: 1. Hirvonen 4min 43.1sec; 2. Ogier + 2.9; 3. Sordo + 3.5; 4. Latvala + 3.9; 5. Loeb + 4.9; 6. Villagra + 7.2.
Overall: 1. Hirvonen 14min 15.0sec; 2. Latvala + 2.5; 3. Sordo + 2.7; 4. Ogier + 3.6; 5. Loeb + 3.9; 6. P Solberg + 8.9.
Stage 3: 1. Ogier 8min 11.2sec; 2. Sordo + 2.0; 3. P Solberg + 2.5; 4. Hirvonen + 4.3; 5. Loeb + 6.2; 6. Latvala + 8.6.
Overall: 1. Ogier 22min 29.8sec; 2. Hirvonen + 0.7; 3. Sordo + 1.1; 4. Loeb + 6.5; 5. Latvala + 7.5; 6. P Solberg + 7.8.
Stage 4: 1. P Solberg 4min 45.0sec; 2. Ogier + 0.4; 3. Sordo + 1.4; 4. Loeb + 1.7; 5. Hirvonen + 2.7; 6. Latvala + 5.5.
Overall: 1. Ogier 27min 15.2sec; 2. Sordo + 2.1; 3. Hirvonen + 3.0; 4. P Solberg + 7.4; 5. Loeb + 7.8; 6. Latvala + 12.6.
Stage 5: 1. Ogier 9min 11.1sec; 2. Sordo + 0.9; 3. Hirvonen + 2.8; 4. Latvala + 2.9; 5. Loeb + 4.1; 6. P Solberg + 7.3.
Overall: 1. Ogier 36min 26.3sec; 2. Sordo + 3.0; 3. Hirvonen + 5.8; 4. Loeb + 11.9; 5. P Solberg + 14.7; 6. Latvala + 15.5.
Stage 6: 1. Ogier 4min 34.6sec; 2. Hirvonen + 1.9; 3. Sordo + 2.0; 4. Latvala + 2.1; 5. P Solberg + 4.7; 6. Loeb + 6.2.
Overall: 1. Ogier 41min 00.9sec; 2. Sordo + 5.0; 3. Hirvonen + 7.7; 4. Latvala + 17.6; 5. Loeb + 18.1; 6. P Solberg + 19.4.
Stage 7: 1. Sordo 7min 59.0sec; 2. P Solberg + 1.6; 3. Ogier + 2.1; 4. Hirvonen + 4.1; 5. Latvala + 6.3; 6. Loeb + 7.5.
Overall: 1. Ogier 49min 02.0sec; 2. Sordo + 2.9; 3. Hirvonen + 9.7; 4. P Solberg + 18.9; 5. Latvala + 21.8; 6. Loeb + 23.5.
Stage 8: 1. P Solberg 4min 33.8sec; 2. Hirvonen + 0.1; 3. Sordo + 0.5; 4. Ogier + 0.6; 5. Loeb + 2.4; 6. Latvala + 4.9.
Overall: 1. Ogier 53min 36.4sec; 2. Sordo + 2.8; 3. Hirvonen + 9.2; 4. P Solberg + 18.3; 5. Loeb + 25.3; 6. Latvala + 26.1.
Stage 9: 1. Loeb 1min 55.9sec; 2. Ogier + 0.4; 3. P Solberg + 0.6; 4. Latvala + 1.8; 5. Raikkonen + 3.0; 6. Sordo + 3.1; 7. Hirvonen + 3.4.
Overall: 1. Ogier 55min 32.7sec; 2. Sordo + 5.5; 3. Hirvonen + 12.2; 4. P Solberg + 18.5; 5. Loeb + 24.9; 6. Latvala + 27.5.