Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg is occupying a strong position at the end of Day 1 of Neste Oil Rally Finland, the ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, moving up to sixth place after ten stages of fast-paced action around the Finnish lakes and forests. Team mate Matthew Wilson, meanwhile, is also well-placed to move into a points-scoring position, lying in tenth place overnight and locked in a battle with Citroen Junior driver Sebastien Ogier who is just 3.5 seconds ahead of the young Brit.

After the traditional opening Super Special Stage at the Killeri trotting track last night, 90 crews headed north-west of the Rally HQ in Jyväskylä to take on two passes of a four-stage loop over the famed Finnish forest roads. Ultra high-speeds tested the drivers’ bravery as well as their skill, and the throngs of fans out on the stages were thrilled by the spectacular jumps.

Solberg and co-driver Cato Menkerud were lying in seventh place after Thursday’s Super Special Stage and had a steady start to the real action this morning. On the opening stage of the day, the 22.29km Jukojärvi, Solberg lost ground on the leaders as he struggled on the slippery forest roads. But he clawed his way back with solid times on the remaining stages.

The Stobart team made some minor changes to the Norwegian’s Ford Focus RS WRC and as he found his rhythm on the second pass over the high-speed tests in the afternoon he lifted his pace. A string of impressive stage times, including fourth place on SS8 Mökkiperä, helped move him up to sixth place overall only 2.6 seconds behind Finnish driver Matti Rantanen.

Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin found themselves in a hard-fought contest against Frenchman Ogier with both crews fighting to move into a points-scoring position. Wilson struggled to find grip on the loose surface of the morning stages but still managed to move up from his overnight position of 13th place to tenth.

At the midday service the Stobart team stiffened the springs on Wilson’s Ford Focus RS WRC which allowed him to be more precise on the afternoon stages. On SS7 Kruununperä he moved ahead of Ogier by five seconds improving on his times from the morning stages.

But as the battle between the two young guns raged on, Ogier clawed his way back ahead of Wilson on the penultimate stage of the day. Pitted against each other on the final Super Special Stage it was Wilson who came out on top, finishing nearly half a second ahead of his rival on the head-to-head challenge.

Saturday will be the longest day of the rally, as the crews take on 166.67 of competitive stages including the longest test of the event, the 29.29km Väärinmaja, which rounds off a tough day. The drivers head south-west of Rally HQ to the town of Jämsä which will play host to two passes of a three-stage loop. After this the rally moves to Mänttä for a further three stages. One stage that will be absent though is the infamous Ouninpohja. The ultra-fast stage has been left out of this year’s itinerary.

Other rally news
BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver Mikko Hirvonen is leading the rally at the end of Day 1, holding a slender lead over his championship rival Sebastien Loeb. Loeb’s Citroen team mate Dani Sordo occupies the final podium position ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala’s Ford Focus RS WRC.

Munchi’s Ford WRT driver Matti Rantanen has put his local knowledge to good use moving up to fifth place at the end of Day 1. Jari Ketomaa rounds off the group of four Finns in the top ten, occupying eighth place in his Subaru Impreza.

It was a tough start to the rally for Petter Solberg who will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules after damaging his car sliding off the road on SS4 this morning. Meanwhile F1 star Kimi Räikkönen has impressed on his first ever FIA World Rally Championship outing lying in 17th place at the end of Day 1.

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
“I haven’t had a good feeling with the car today but I’m still trying to drive as hard as I can. We made a few small changes in service and things were better for the second pass but, for sure, there is still room for improvement. The guys in front of me are driving very fast and it’s very hard to try and keep up with them when my feeling with the car isn’t good enough. I’m enjoying the stages though and I know that things should get better tomorrow as I get more into it. The stages were hard today and quite a lot more slippy than I thought.”

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
“Today was a difficult start to the event but we made some good progress during the day. The stages this morning were very loose and slippery and we probably had the car a bit too soft as it felt lazy and wasn’t turning into corners well. We made some good improvements in service by stiffening the springs and it helped for the second pass. But it was still tricky with the stages becoming rutted and more rocks than normal starting to appear. The pace at the front is very fast and hopefully for tomorrow we can improve some more. I’d like to get up into the points but don’t want to push too hard too fast.”

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson said:
“Today has been challenging for the Stobart team but both crews have delivered a solid drive and are sitting nicely in the points. It’s exactly the right start to make on this difficult event and with nearly half of the competitive kilometres tomorrow, there’s still a lot that this event can through at them. They both settled in well and improved their pace as the day went on. Henning is just a few seconds off a top-five place and, as we saw in Poland, he has the ability to get faster throughout the event and hopefully challenge the drivers ahead of him.”

Leaderboard at end of Day 1
1. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen (FIN) Ford Focus RS 1h04m12.3s
2. S Loeb/D Elena (FRA) Citroën C4 +3.3s
3. D Sordo/M Marti (ESP) Citroën C4 +20.0s
4. J-M Latvala/M Anttila (FIN) Ford Focus RS +30.1s
5. M Rantanen/M Lukka Ford Focus RS +1m14.1s
6. H Solberg/C Menkerud (NOR) Ford Focus RS +1m16.7s
7. M Östberg/J Andersson (NOR) Subaru Impreza +1m36.5s
8. J Ketomaa/M Stenberg (FIN) Subaru Impreza +1m38.4s
9. S Ogier/J Ingrassia (FRA) Citroën C4 +2m14.6s
10. M Wilson/S Martin (GB) Ford Focus RS +2m18.1s

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