S?bastien Loeb confessed that he had not expected to still be leading the way at the end of the opening loop of stages on this weekend's Rallye de Espa?a - but after establishing an 11.9-second advantage over his closest pursuer, that is precisely where the recently-crowned seven-time World Rally Champion finds himself.

Running first on-the-road on a largely gravel-constituted surface should theoretically have counted against the Frenchman, but then Loeb has proven time and again that he is far from just a mere mortal, and fog over SS1 - Terra Alta 1 - left moisture in the air that helped to bind the loose gravel together somewhat, leaving less to be swept away.

"There was definitely some cleaning, so I wasn't expecting to lead at this point and it's a nice surprise to be in this position," Loeb told the official WRC website after triumphing on two of the first three stages and finishing third on the other. "It doesn't change anything, though. I'm just driving at my normal pace and I'm going to carry on in the same way this afternoon. That's still flat-out, but without taking any stupid risks. The fact that I'm champion doesn't make any difference!"

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Namesake and fellow Citro?n star S?bastien Ogier - the only one of the French manufacturer's two Junior Team entries left in the event, following former F1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen's shakedown exit yesterday (Thursday) - runs second, just over a second ahead of BP Ford Abu Dhabi ace Jari-Matti Latvala, with 2003 World Rally Champion Petter Solberg fourth in his privately-run C4, albeit another ten seconds further in arrears after lamenting a lack of grip on the opening stage, costing the popular Norwegian some 20 seconds before he fought back brilliantly with the fastest time on SS2. The top four in the order thus match the top four in the title standings.

"The fog does make things quite unpredictable," acknowledged Ogier. "I've got to take my hat off to S?bastien [Loeb], though - he did a great job this morning, and normally it should be a bit easier for him this afternoon."

"I had a straight-on in the third stage," rued Latvala. "When you have mixed asphalt-and-gravel stages like we had this morning, the braking is not always easy. You have to keep on adjusting your perceptions."

"The car was just a little too stiff, so we didn't get the traction," added Solberg. "It was a disaster on the first stage. There's never a huge difference between a set-up that's perfect and one that costs you time, and unfortunately we didn't get it quite right - but for the rest of the day, we should be okay."

Behind the second Ford entry of fifth-placed Mikko Hirvonen - like in France three weeks ago, curiously off the pace of team-mate Latvala - one disappointment has been the form of home hero Dani Sordo, who languished in sixth position as the crews returned to the Port Aventura service park, more than 25 seconds adrift of his own team-mate, Loeb.

"It's not been easy," confessed the 27-year-old. "The asphalt parts of the road are extremely dirty because there are so many loose stones from the gravel section on the line. You have to be very careful, and I prefer not to take too many risks."

In the Junior World Rally Championship (JWRC), meanwhile - a battle that will be decided this weekend - local wild card entry Yeray Lemes is setting the pace in his Renault Clio S1600, pursued by the two men disputing the crown, Hans Weijs Jnr and Aaron Burkart, the pair just under half a minute apart from one another and the other way around to their respective positions in the points table.

Rallye de Espa?a: Overall standings after Stage 3 (Top 10):

1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total WRT C4 WRC 43mins 00.4secs M
2. Sebastien Ogier Citroen Junior Team C4 WRC +00mins 11.9secs M
3. Jari-Matti Latvala BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC +00mins 13.1secs M
4. Petter Solberg PSWRT Citroen C4 WRC +00mins 23.8secs A8
5. Mikko Hirvonen BP Ford Abu Dhabi Focus RS WRC +00mins 24.5secs M
6. Dani Sordo Citroen Total WRT C4 WRC +00mins 25.2secs M
7. Matthew Wilson Stobart M-Sport Ford Focus WRC +01mins 23.0secs M
8. Ken Block Stobart M-Sport Ford Focus WRC +01mins 53.4secs M
9. Federico Villagra Munchi's Ford Focus WRC +01mins 54.6secs M
10. Frigyes Turan Peugeot 307 WRC +02mins 26.6secs A8

JWRC Standings after Stage 3 (Top 3):

1. Yeray Lemes Renault Clio S1600 47mins 45.8secs J
2. Hans Weijs Jnr Citroen C2 S1600 +00mins 21.0secs J
3. Aaron Burkart Suzuki Swift S1600 +00mins 46.9secs J

all times unofficial