Citroen team leader Sebastien Loeb staked his claim for his first ever victory on the Neste Oil Rally Finland this morning, by powering into a 9.1-second lead on the first two loops.

Loeb, who took the lead last night by setting the pace through the short Killeri super special, was on it from the off in his C4 WRC car and he won four stages outright and tied for honours with Mikko Hirvonen in SS2 and SS6 - when they were both joint fastest.

"It is going very, very well so far. It is a pity about the weather as the stages were very wet in some places and then would go onto dry damp spots. For sure it is a bit risky to go quickly but, hey, no problem so far," reflected the Frenchman. "My plan is to fight for first place. I don't know if my lead is enough yet though for tomorrow."

Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile was the only runner that was anywhere near Loeb, but despite matching the four-time world champion in Vellipohja 1 and Mokkipera 2, he was unable to beat him and consequently he now finds himself almost 10 seconds adrift.

"I've enjoyed a good battle with S?bastien Loeb," said Mikko. "I am trying to beat him and trying not to make any mistakes at the same time. It's not always easy!

"The first stage was quite wet while the other two were damp, but I had no rain on the stages. It was slippery in the gravel on the drier roads but I don't think Loeb had any advantage by starting one position behind me. But I expected the cars further down the order to be quicker.

"It's strange my pace is not fast enough. The gap is not big, but on the other hand, we haven't been able to narrow it either. I was too careful in SS6 and need to pick up my pace. Tactics might come into play later so we shall see what happens on the final loop."

Dani Sordo is next up, albeit just over 30 seconds off his team-mate, and currently on course for the final spot on the podium. The battle for P3 though is very tight and Stobart Ford's Gigi Galli is only 4.3 seconds further back, while Henning Solberg is also in contention and so too is Urmo Aava. Indeed the four are only split by around 12 seconds.

Further down the order, Ramsport Ford runner Andreas Mikkelsen is seventh, while Petter Solberg is eighth in the new Subaru Impreza WRC2008, 5.8 seconds off P7 and almost a minute off P1.

"We know the new car will be really very good, but we just have to do a little more work. I'm trying hard and pushing a lot, but the speed has not come yet," said Petter. "We have to try to find it and improve it, as it's very tough at the moment. There are so many different road conditions here and bumpy and jumpy, and the challenge is to find a balance that works in every single one."

Atkinson, who lies one spot further down in ninth in the sister Impreza WRC2008, was also struggling to match the pace of the front runners: "We had a little bit of rain in the first stage after this morning's surface, and the surface is very loose and slippery. We're a little slower than we were this morning, so we're looking at the reasons and we've got to try and figure out why," he explained.

"I'm pushing hard for sure, so it's frustrating to not quite be there yet. We'll see what we can do in service and the stages this afternoon, see what the feeling is and I'll drive as fast as I can."

Of the rest Suzuki's Toni Gardemeister completes the top ten in the 'B-spec' SX4 WRC, just in front of his team-mate, Per-Gunnar Andersson. Gardemeister was lucky to get back to service B though after a big moment in SS7. The Finn hurt his hand in the incident and may have dislocated his shoulder again.

"I hurt my hand badly in a jump. I thought we would roll at least five times but luckily that didn't happen," he reflected. "We drove back onto the road via a field through some Norwegian flags."

In terms of the other World Rally Car drivers' Matti Rantanen is twelfth, while Matthew Wilson, Luis-Perez Companc, Conrad Rautenbach, Federico Villagra and Khalid Al-Qassimi come in 13th to 17th, the latter just in front of PWRC class leader, Juha Salo.

Salo leads the Production class by 10.7 seconds, with Juho Hanninen and Patrik Flodin second and third. In the Junior WRC Michal Kosciuszko is on course for the win in his Suzuki Swift, 4.7 seconds up on Martin Prokop and 17.5 seconds up on Patrik Sandell in third.

Two major names have gone out so far, with Jari-Matti Latvala going off the road in SS3 in his BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT-entry, while Mads Ostberg also crashed out, but in SS6.

The action now resumes with the 12.65 kilometre-run through Urria, SS8. Three more proper stages lay in wait, before a second run through the Killeri super special brings the opening leg to a close.

More to follow later...