Ford driver Jari-Matti Latvala has spoken of his relief at making it through the opening day of the Rally d'Italia-Sardegna in the lead of the event.
Latvala suffered a torrid run of three successive crashes earlier in the season, but turned in a flawless performance to pick up a 39.8 second lead over teammate Hirvonen at the end of today's six stages.
Hirvonen and third-placed man Sebastien Loeb both slowed down on the final test, taking a tactical approach to the second day, leaving Latvala out front. The Finn will spend the next two days trying to defend that advantage.
"It's fantastic to be leading and to be driving flat out again," said Latvala. "To be told to drive flat out is great for me. I feel more relaxed and more confident again now. I was quite tense this morning, but as the day has passed it has become better and better.
"Now I know what I have to do and that's to win this rally. I have lost my championship, but this is a chance for me to give something back to the team and I want to take that chance."
Despite his lead, Latvala admitted it would be tough to hold Hirvonen and Loeb off through the remaining 11 stages.
"Loeb's going to be tough," he said. "We have to wait for them to launch the rocket tomorrow! Having said that, the pressure is on them now. It's Mikko and Sebastien that have to push to try and catch me. We'll have to see."
Despite the 42.8-second gap between Loeb's third-placed Citroen C4 and Latvala's rally-leading Focus, Citroen team principal Olivier Quesnel said he was not concerned.
"Yesterday, [Jari-Matti] Latvala said he would need to be one-and-a-half minutes in the lead to be comfortable," said Quesnel,"and he has 42 seconds. It should be fine. They [Ford] can do the tactics, but so can we and we can do them just as well as anybody.
"But, as well as this, we have Sebastien and everything is a little bit easier when you have Seb. You know I don't like this tactic, but one thing is sure: if we do nothing, then we lose."