He might have confessed pre-event to feeling under 'one hell of a lot of pressure', but if he was then multiple World Rally Champion S?bastien Loeb refused to let it show on the opening loop of this weekend's Rallye de France, as he closes inexorably in on an incredible seventh straight drivers' crown.

With the rally's traditional home of Corsica having been swapped this season for Strasbourg - home turf indeed for Alsacien Loeb - the WRC's 'recordman' displayed no nerves at all and mastered the drying conditions left by overnight rain to prove peerless over the first four entertaining and action-packed asphalt stages, triumphing on every one of them to establish an early advantage of just under 15 seconds in an imposing Citro?n one-two-three-four.

Stage two, indeed - the 16.58km Firstplan 1 run - was the first stage the Frenchman had ever driven in rallying at the wheel of a little Peugeot 106 some 13 years ago, and if he acknowledged that 'the road was slippery and I had to concentrate', the 36-year-old nonetheless conceded to a touch of nostalgia upon arriving at the midday service in Mulhouse to the south of Strasbourg 14.7 seconds clear of his nearest pursuer.

The next three places are occupied by S?bastien Ogier, Petter Solberg and Dani Sordo, with only 8.6 seconds blanketing the trio. Whilst Ogier revealed that although he is 'flat-out', he is 'losing some time in some places' due to the treacherous surface, both Solberg and Sordo were left lamenting their poor running order positions.

"We have to get a better place on the road for tomorrow," the 2003 World Rally Champion told the official WRC website. "The road is dirty for us. I was getting a lot of understeer in the corners - after just three cars there is a lot of mud on the road."

"I'm not confident," mused Sordo. "I can't find the confidence because I can't find the grip. I can't read the road the way I want to."

Jari-Matti Latvala is the first of the non-Citro?n entries in fifth - and an impressive second-quickest to Loeb in SS4, Grand Ballon 1 - and just five seconds adrift of Sordo despite admitting to some small errors, but BP Ford Abu Dhabi team-mate and countryman Mikko Hirvonen is struggling down in sixth, more than half-a-minute further in arrears. Former F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen runs seventh, just under a minute behind Hirvonen, with current World Touring Car Championship leader Yvan Muller twelfth in the second PSWRT car.

In the Super 2000 category, Norwegian Eyvind Brynildsen has stolen an early 2.5-second lead in his Skoda over Michal Kosciuszko, with Thierry Neuville holding a rather more comfortable 27.6-second margin in the Junior class. Armindo Araujo inherited the lead in PWRC after fellow Mitsubishi ace Hayden Paddon suffered a puncture on SS4 that dropped the young New Zealander back from first to third.

Rallye de France: Overall standings after Stage 4 (Top 10):

1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total WRT C4 WRC 38mins 43.6secs M
2. Sebastien Ogier Citroen Junior Team C4 WRC +00mins 14.7secs M
3. Petter Solberg PSWRT Citroen C4 WRC +00mins 19.3secs A8
4. Dani Sordo Citroen Total WRT C4 WRC +00mins 23.3secs M
5. Jari-Matti Latvala BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC +00mins 28.3secs M
6. Mikko Hirvonen BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC +01mins 06.0secs M
7. Kimi Raikkonen Citroen Junior Team C4 WRC +01mins 59.9secs M
8. Frigyes Turan Peugeot 307 WRC +02mins 56.8secs A8
9. Federico Villagra Munchi's Ford Focus WRC +03mins 08.4secs M
10. Matthew Wilson Stobart M-Sport Ford Focus WRC +03mins 22.5secs M

SWRC Standings after Stage 4 (Top 3):

1. Eyvind Brynildsen Skoda Fabia S2000 43mins 21.2secs S
2. Michal Kosciuszko Skoda Fabia S2000 +00mins 02.5secs S
3. Xavi Pons Ford Fiesta S2000 +00mins 09.5secs S

JWRC Standings after Stage 4 (Top 3):

1. Thierry Neuville Citroen C2 S1600 44mins 22.2secs J
2. Hans Weijs Jnr Citroen C2 S1600 +00mins 27.6secs J
3. Kevin Abbring Renault Clio R3 +00mins 37.1secs J

PWRC Standings after Stage 4 (Top 3):

1. Armindo Araujo Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 44mins 05.2secs P
2. Anders Grondal Subaru Impreza STi +00mins 16.5secs P
3. Hayden Paddon Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +00mins 28.5secs P

all times unofficial