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Ice, snow and darkness combined to provide a tricky opening to Rallye Monte Carlo tonight for the new-look BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen ended today's opening action in third place in a Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, while debutant team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are 18th in a similar Focus RS after hitting a rock and stopping to change a wheel.
The opening round of the 2008 FIA World Rally Championship is renowned for its unpredictable road conditions and tonight's opening two speed tests in the Vercors mountains, east of the rally base of Valence, proved the point. Held on blisteringly fast and predominantly wide roads, most of the 45.70km of competition was on dry asphalt. However, snow thrown onto the stages from the side of the roads by spectators and icy patches made life difficult for drivers in the gloom.
With average speeds approaching 120kph, Hirvonen was third fastest on both stages to return to Valence for the overnight halt 44.0sec behind the leader. The 27-year-old Finn admitted to being cautious when he discovered ice on both tests.
"There was a lot of ice in the final 10km of the second stage and I had a couple of scares, so I took it steadily after that," he said. "I was worried about the damp patches and the black ice and had no confidence when it looked slippery, so I eased off too much. Although I may have lost the fight tonight, the main battle isn't over yet. Temperatures were -3ÂșC so it was hard to get heat into the Pirelli tyres but they worked well and I was pleased with them.
"There are three more days of rallying in daylight to come so that will be better and I will feel more confident. I'm sure I can go faster tomorrow when I have a clearer view of the conditions and can pick out the bad areas," added Hirvonen.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team-mate Latvala struck problems near the midpoint of the opening St Jean en Royans test, when he became the first victim of the new rule banning puncture-resistant mousse inside the tyres.
"Fifteen kilometres after the start we came through a tunnel into a fast right, fourth gear corner, but I went too deep into the bend and hit a rock with the front right wheel," said the 22-year-old Finn. "The impact damaged the wheel rim and the tyre went flat immediately but I had to drive another 100m until I found a junction where I could stop. There wasn't enough power in the wheel nut gun to undo the nuts, so we had to use the wheel brace to loosen them before then taking them off with the gun." Latvala lost about three minutes.
"The tyres were good and I had excellent grip in the dry but when I slid on the ice it affected my confidence. It wasn't easy in the dark because it was hard to see where the ice was. Tomorrow I want to find a good rhythm, set good times and try to move back into the points for the team," he added.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and new co-driver Michael Orr are 11th in another official Focus RS. "My safety crew did a great job of highlighting where it was icy and where there might be snow on the road," said Al Qassimi. "I'm pleased with my times, even though I stalled the engine at the start of the second stage. When it was icy I drove cautiously and took no risks."
BP Ford Abu Dhabi team director Malcolm Wilson reflected on the opening day of the new season. "I'm surprised Mikko dropped so much time on the second stage but it's good he knows where and how. Jari-Matti learned the hard way about the new tyre rules, but now he understands that he has to think carefully about not cutting corners and what the consequences might be if he does," he said.News from our Rivals
World champion Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) opened a 12.7sec lead over team-mate Dani Sordo after they shared a stage win each. Sordo lost time on the second stage when he damaged his spotlights. Behind Hirvonen, Chris Atkinson (Subaru) headed François Duval (Ford) with Petter Solberg (Subaru) rounding off the top six. Duval had no information from his safety crew after their car broke down and he slid off the road several times on the opening stage, while Solberg spun on the same test. Toni Gardemeister (Suzuki) was eighth despite clutch and intercom problems, while team-mate Per-Gunnar Andersson broke a rear driveshaft on the opening stage and had to tackle the rest of the leg with front-wheel drive only.Tomorrow’s Route
The second day's action takes competitors into the Ardèche mountains, south-west of Valence, for two identical clockwise loops of three stages which are split by a return to the Valence service park. After an early-morning 06.50 start, they return to the town for the second overnight halt at 19.56 after 116.96km of competition.
Leaderboard after Day 1
1. S Loeb/D Elena F Citroen C4 23min 38.4sec
2. D Sordo/M Marti E Citroen C4 23min 51.1sec
3. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen FIN Ford Focus RS 24min 22.4sec
4. C Atkinson/S Prévot AUS Subaru Impreza 24min 37.0sec
5. F Duval/E Chevailler B Ford Focus RS 24min 51.9sec
6. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 24min 52.9sec
7. G Galli/G Bernacchini I Ford Focus RS 25min 04.5sec
8. T Gardemeister/T Tuominen FIN Suzuki SX4 25min 31.5sec
9. J-M Cuoq/P Janvier F Peugeot 307 25min 47.6sec
10 F Romeyer/T Fournel F Peugeot 206 26min 29.1sec
Stage 1: 1. Sordo 14min 08.9sec; 2. Loeb + 3.8; 3. Hirvonen + 20.1; 4. Atkinson + 31.0; 5. Duval + 38.7; 6. P Solberg + 41.2; 10. Al Qassimi 1:30.4; 33. Latvala + 4:10.2.
Stage 2: 1. Loeb 9min 25.7sec; 2. Sordo + 16.5; 3. Hirvonen + 27.7; 4. Atkinson + 31.4; 5. P Solberg + 37.1; 6. Duval + 38.6; 8. Latvala + 48.0; 12 Al Qassimi + 1:32.4.
Overall: 1. Loeb 23min 38.4sec; 2. Sordo + 12.7; 3. Hirvonen + 44.0; 4. Atkinson + 58.6; 5. Duval + 1:13.5; 6. P Solberg + 1:14.5; 11. Al Qassimi + 2:59.0; 18. Latvala + 4:54.4.
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