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RALLY: Rally Finland - Leg 1

23 August 1998

Kankkunens Ford masters Finnish deluge

Flying Finn Juha Kankkunen delighted his home fans by powering his Ford Escort World Rally Car into third position at the end of todays rain-lashed opening day of the Rally Finland. Despite the weather making driving conditions treacherously slippery, the four-time world champion posted fastest time on the events opening special stage and is just 10.2 seconds behind leader Tommi Mkinen tonight.

Kankkunen, competing on stages just a few kilometres from his home town of Laukaa, was unsurprisingly the favourite of the fans. The Ford World Rally team driver produced a masterful driving display in his Valvoline-backed Escort as the mud-covered gravel roads caught out many of his rivals.

The 39-year-old, co-driven by Juha Repo, has won this 10th round of the FIA World Rally Championship twice and has been in the battle for the lead throughout todays nine stages, covering 90km, close to the rallys host city of Jyvskyl.

"Todays stages have been extremely difficult, even for an experienced campaigner like me," said Kankkunen. "The heavy rain made the roads very slippery with standing water in some sections which makes it very hard to judge your braking. But these conditions are the same for everyone and tomorrows stages will not be so bad. They are wider and faster and on roads I know well. It was a disadvantage to be second car through the stages today but that shouldnt be the case tomorrow."

Co-driver Repo added: "It wasnt easy for anyone in the wet but on the harder surfaces the Escort felt great. Were very happy with our position tonight. Mkinen is not so far ahead and tomorrows route is on stages we really enjoy so well attack hard."

Fellow countryman Ari Vatanen, added to Fords team for this rally to bring vital experience to the squad, was delighted to finish the leg in eighth position in his Infogrames-backed Escort World Rally Car. Competing on his home rally for the first time in four years, the former world champion and co-driver Fred Gallagher elected a safety-first policy in the testing conditions.

"We were a little bit rusty but its difficult for any of us not to be rusty after a day like today!" joked the 46-year-old Finn. "Ive driven steadily today and while I would like dry weather, the Escort is fine in the wet. I cant swap times with the leaders but Im really enjoying myself back on my home event again."

Belgians Bruno Thiry and co-driver Stphane Prvot, relative novices on the Finnish stages compared to their team-mates, found it hard to come to terms with the challenging roads which favour experience and home knowledge so much that only two non-Scandinavians have won this event in its 47-year history.

The team softened the front and rear damper settings on the Escort after Thiry slid off the road on the fourth stage and dropped 30 seconds and he ended the leg in 11th position.

"I would like to find more of a rhythm with the car and Ive struggled a little with the set-up today but weve made some alterations and well see what effect that has tomorrow," said Thiry. "The conditions have only made it harder for me and I think that if the weather had been dry, today would have been very different for me.

Ford Finland driver Sebastian Lindholm made a strong start to hold seventh in his Escort World Rally Car after the opening stage but crashed heavily on the next test and retired. Lindholm hit a rock with the cars offside rear wheel and the impact sent the car into a double roll. Neither Lindholm nor co-driver Timo Hantunen were hurt.

Ford World Rally team director Malcolm Wilson was encouraged by Kankkunens performance. "Im delighted with the way Juha has nibbled back some time from Carlos this evening. It has given him the confidence to attack tomorrow. All three Escorts are fine and weve made significant changes to Brunos car to try to give him confidence because conditions have been very similar to New Zealand where he crashed heavily.

"Ari seems very happy. Hes driven sensibly and safely and is looking very good for a top six position which, given the limited number of rallies he has competed on this year, would be good," added Wilson.

Tomorrows second leg is the longest and most demanding of the rally. The drivers leave Jyvskyl at 07.00 and tackle 10 more stages to the south-west of the city covering 194.58km before returning for the final overnight halt at 20.04. The day contains many classic Finnish stages, where wide roads and huge jumps predominate, and three of the tests are longer than 30km.