Fords 1-2 in Norway BP-Ford World Rally Team lie first and second after controlling today's opening leg of Rally Norway. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen led this third round of the FIA World Rally Championship from the opening kilometer in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car. They ended the day with a 15.5sec advantage over team-mates Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen in a similar Focus RS.
Just a week after a dominant victory in the Swedish Rally, BP-Ford continued where it left off in similar wintry conditions in Norway. Hirvonen won two of the eight speed tests covering 143.10km in the Kongsvinger forests, north-east of Oslo and close to the Swedish border. Grönholm settled into second on the opening test and maintained his place throughout the day.
The tiny town centre of Hamar was packed last night as 10,000 Norwegians celebrated their country's first appearance in the WRC at the start ceremony. The biggest sporting event in the country since the 1994 Winter Olympics at nearby Lillehammer has captured the public's imagination and huge crowds are expected on the special stages throughout the weekend.
After a period of intense cold weather with plenty of snow, temperatures have risen and hovered just below freezing this morning. The roads were in perfect condition with snow covering the icy base, although drivers reported gravel breaking through the ice on the single stage that was used twice. Both Hirvonen and Grönholm fitted long studs to their skinny BFGoodrich tires to penetrate the snow and dig into the ice to provide maximum grip and traction.
Hirvonen dominated the opening 30.03km Løten stage, powering his Focus RS to fastest time over team-mate Grönholm by 11.1sec and setting the scene for the day. He was also fastest when the stage was repeated and the gap between the 26-year-old Finn and his 39-year-old team-mate and fellow countryman barely fluctuated.
"This was one of the best days of my career," he said. "I drove really hard and I'm fighting with Marcus and Loeb which is a great feeling. I woke up feeling confident and decided to attack hard although I was a little surprised to be leading. I'm driving at my own pace and not looking at the split times of others. I have to continue attacking because Marcus and Loeb are pushing hard but I'm not worried and I can keep this pace up, although it will be easy to make a mistake.
"The long stage early in the morning could be crucial. I will be 15th car to start and by that time it could be quite gravely so tire choice will be difficult. It's hard deciding what length stud I should choose. I got it slightly wrong this afternoon and lost a little time but that was my only problem today," he added.
Grönholm, winner in Sweden on Sunday, found it less easy to come to terms with a new event. "Conditions were good but it was difficult to find the right rhythm with new pace notes, and the whole day didn't feel quite right," he said. "I think my notes were too optimistic and I made a few changes during the stages. It's not easy without previous knowledge of the roads. There was a lot of snow and I wasn't so confident with that or my notes.
"Tomorrow my start position will give me cleaner roads. I need to find a better rhythm and not lose so much time nudging the snow banks. I must drive more cleanly and not go so wide in the junctions. It's not easy to find the braking points but when you don't know the stages well, it's important to brake early and not go wide," he added.
BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with 'an excellent team performance'. "Both cars ran faultlessly and Mikko's pace today proves that a new event, where previous experience isn't a factor, is a great leveler. Mikko has done a good race and has a good set of pace notes," he said.
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Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) led the challenge to the BP-Ford duo. He won five stages but also made mistakes, sliding into a snow bank on the first stage and overshooting a junction in the sixth test. He is 1.8sec behind Grönholm. Four cars enjoyed a thrilling battle for fourth, swapping places on every stage. Petter Solberg (Subaru) came out on top during the afternoon, despite bending his car's steering on the sixth test. Toni Gardemeister (Mitsubishi) followed him, the Finn dropping time after going off on the final corner of the third stage. Gigi Galli (Citroen) was close behind, despite spinning this afternoon, with Henning Solberg (Ford) also in close pursuit in seventh. Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) held third this morning until he incurred 90sec penalties as his team fitted a new power steering rack and pump. The Finn won one stage and posted several other excellent times as he recovered to 10th. Jan Kopecky (Skoda) dropped almost three minutes after a third stage off but there were no major retirements.
The second leg is more northerly, taking drivers up towards Lillehammer, host town of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games. After leaving Hamar at 06.50, drivers tackle two tests east of the town, including the opening 44.28km Elverum, the longest test of the rally and one of the longest of the season. They then head north before ending the day with a short test through parkland in Hamar itself. Competitors tackle six stages in total covering 115.79km before the final overnight halt in Hamar at 16.15. Ford Racing PR
Pos Driver Make Time
1. Hirvonen Ford 1:57:22.9
2. Gronholm Ford + 19.7
3. Loeb Citroen + 27.0
4. Solberg Subaru + 2:05.4
5. Galli Citroen + 3:00.7
6. Solberg Ford + 3:06.5
7. Latvala Ford + 3:38.0
8. Stohl Citroen + 4:09.6
9. Carlsson Citroen + 4:39.8
10. Hanninen Mitsubishi + 5:02.2