AFP - Clearly energised by being on home turf, Mikko Hirvonen was thriving on the second day of Rally Finland as he established a narrow lead over defending world champion Sebastien Loeb after Friday's ten special stages.
Loeb, out for a sixth world championship crown and triumphant here last season, won the opening stage but was soon on the back foot as Hirvonen, seeking to bolster a one-point championship lead, bagged the next two in his Ford Focus.
Although Citroen's Loeb rallied strongly and netted the short super special stage to conclude the day's proceedings, the Frenchman stood 3.3 sec off the pace as Hirvonen timed an overall 1hr 04:12.3 to hold top spot despite his rival landing six stages to his own four.
Last year it was Loeb who set the early pace to hang on for the overall "1000 Lakes" win here, but Hirvonen is bent on keeping his nose in front through to the finish.
"Today's my birthday so I asked Seb to give me a minute advantage - but I only got four seconds," joked the 29-year-old ahead of the final stage which saw Loeb barely trim that tiny gap.
In a more serious vein he added: "Today has been okay but two of the stages are difficult for me and now Sebastien is coming up fast. I made two or three small mistakes, and it wasn't not so good this afternoon but I think I can pull away from him tomorrow. That's the plan," he told wrc.com.
Loeb said he was revelling in a "good fight".
He said: "Now Mikko has four seconds so I'll try my best. You have to be completely confident here. Finland is not my favourite rally - it’s very specific and fast and dangerous - but the feeling is good and when you see it's this close you know it’s a really tough battle."
Fellow Citroen driver Dani Sordo stood in third place 20sec behind Loeb after losing precious seconds in the middle of special stage nine while Finn Jari-Matti Latvala was 10sec further back in fourth spot.
Although he landed the opening stage Loeb admitted that "during the first two (stages) we were having a hard time getting our rhythm. I wasn't totally satisfied with the way the car was handling so we tweaked the shock absorbers and the gearbox and things were better from then on," said Loeb.
Former Formula One world champion Kimi Raikkonen, who on Thursday was mulling the possibility of switching to rallying some time in the future, was 17th in a Fiat Abarth Grande Punto prepared by four-time world rally champion Tommi Makinen but earned praise from co-driver Kaj Lindstrom.
"What he did today was remarkable," Lindstrom enthused as Raikkonen came to grips with the challenge of wholly different terrain from Formula One.
Rally of Finland first leg classification on Friday:
1. Mikko Hirvonen (FIN/Ford Focus) 1 hr 02:51.4
2. Sebastien Loeb (FRA/Citroen C4) at 4.0
3. Dani Sordo (ESP/Citroen C4) 20.3
4. Jari-Matti Latvala (FIN/Ford Focus) 29.5
5. Matti Rantanen (FIN/Ford Focus) 1:12.7
6. Henning Solberg (NOR/Ford Focus) 1:15.8
7. Mads Ostberg (NOR/Subaru Impreza) 1:35.6
8. Jari Ketomaa (FIN/Subaru Impreza) 1:37.0
9. Sebastien Ogier (FRA/Citroen C4) 2:13.2
10. Matthew Wilson (GBR/Ford Focus) 2:17.1
11. Conrad Rautenbach (ZIM/Citroen C4) 3:36.2
12. Khalid Al Qassimi (UAE-GBR/Ford Focus) 4:24.7