Hirvonen fends off Loeb in Finland

Mikko Hirvonen has taken an early lead in the Rally Finland, but his title rival Sebastien Loeb is closing in

Hirvonen fends off Loeb in Finland

Championship leader Hirvonen hit the front on the first full-length stage this morning and then pulled away on SS3 as Loeb admitted to struggling for confidence and having a tentative run through the Kruununpera test.

But the Citroen driver was back on the pace from SS4, winning both of the next two stages to reduce Hirvonen's advantage to 3.6 seconds.

"It was really hard because we lost a lot of time in the morning," said Loeb. "Now the feeling with the car is better so we'll have to try to catch up."

Hirvonen, who had been 7s clear after SS3, acknowledged that the pressure was mounting as Loeb picked up speed.

"Sebastien has definitely started to push as well, it's going to be a close fight," said the Ford driver.

Petter Solberg had been in the thick of this fight early on, holding second place after SS3. But he blew a tyre with a heavy landing from a jump on the next stage, then went into a ditch with a second puncture shortly afterwards. Having lost six minutes and with only one spare tyre, Solberg decided to retire from the day rather than risk limping through the rest of the loop and following road section.

Dani Sordo therefore holds third in the second Citroen. The Spaniard was briefly ahead of team leader Loeb before the champion increased his pace, and is now fending off a closing Jari-Matti Latvala, who reduced the gap to 3.9s by the end of SS5.

Latvala admitted that he had been driving nervously this morning - not just because of his error at the end of the previous round in Poland, but also as he had crashed out very early on his home event for the past two years, which has left him lacking in stage experience.

"It's okay, it could be better. No big mistakes, so that's why I'm happy," said Latvala at the end of SS5. "This stage is one I haven't done for the past two years because I've been crashing out so early."

Mads Ostberg holds an excellent fifth place in his Adapta Subaru, yet ended the loop frustrated by a growing steering problem.

"We have huge problems with the front of the car," he said. "Everything goes out of line and I don't understand it."

Despite this issue, he remained 1.8s ahead of Munchi's Ford's guest driver Matti Rantanen, with Henning Solberg (Stobart Ford) taking seventh from Subaru privateer Jari Ketomaa on SS5 after the Finn lost a few seconds by stalling.

Sebastien Ogier is currently the top Citroen Junior driver in ninth, while his team-mate Evgeny Novikov was an early retirement. The Russian crashed after a crest on the day's first stage, and although he continued in the belief that the car only had superficial damage, his battered rear suspension then broke on SS3.

Kimi Raikkonen is continuing to perform very respectably on his World Rally Championship debut. The Ferrari Formula 1 driver currently holds 19th overall, sixth among the Super 2000/Production specification cars, and has started to match fellow Abarth driver Anton Alen's times.

Leading positions after SS5:

Pos Driver Car Time/Gap 1. Mikko Hirvonen Ford 32m21.7s 2. Sebastien Loeb Citroen + 3.6s 3. Dani Sordo Citroen + 11.6s 4. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 15.5s 5. Mads Ostberg Subaru + 38.7s 6. Matti Rantanen Ford + 40.5s 7. Henning Solberg Ford + 43.4s 8. Jari Ketomaa Subaru + 51.8s 9. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 56.3s 10. Matthew Wilson Ford +1m12.0s 
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