Citroen's Sebastien Loeb leads Rally de Espana following the opening loop of three stages this morning.

Loeb moved into P1 in the very first test, when he was 7.4 seconds quicker than his closest rival. Although the Frenchman was first on the road and had to sweep the line, for once this actually proved to his advantage, as his rivals lost time in the hanging dust clouds, which severely limited visibility.

Loeb then maintained his position in SS2 and SS3, where the dust continued to be a problem, setting the second and third quickest times respectively, to return to the mid-day service halt with a 5.3 second advantage.

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"I've cleaned the road on several occasions this season, but for once I can say that it's been an advantage," Loeb said. "It's great to be in the lead at midday.

"We risk losing time this afternoon as the sweeping phenomenon is an important factor, especially on the third stage, which is narrow and slow with a lot of quick bursts of acceleration and very little grip. We're going to have to push hard as what we lose on gravel will be difficult to make up on tarmac."

Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile is best of the rest for the Ford Abu Dhabi WRT, and while he lost time to Loeb in SS1 and SS2, he hit back in SS3 and reduced the margin by 3.6 seconds.

"It was cold and still this morning and the dust hung in the air," said the columnist. "I tried to balance bravery with caution but I had a few close escapes in the second stage. In a long left corner the car slid into a ditch and luckily I was able to get out without losing any time, but some branches broke the rear spoiler.

"The car felt good and I gave myself 8.5 out of 10 this morning, but I need to stop the small errors."

Sebastien Ogier is next up, 6.6 seconds back in third, and after starting cautiously in SS1, he was quickest in SS2 and SS3.

"In the first stage we couldn't see anything because of the dust thrown up by the cars in front of us," Ogier said. "The further we drove the more the sunrise that was straight in our eyes made things difficult. Some of the clouds of dust were really thick, and we had to brake on the straights as it was impossible to know where we were. The main cause is the humidity. I hope this isn't going to happen again in the last stage, which is being run at night."

Mikko Hirvonen lies fourth, although he has not had the best of starts and is already 24.6 seconds off P3 - and 36.5 seconds off the lead, an off in SS1 having dented his confidence.

"I was too cautious and now I need to attack to pull time back. I tried to take risks but I couldn't see enough to do that and made a mistake in the first stage. That made me even more cautious," he confirmed.

"I went off the road at a double right, fifth gear corner. The first part was OK, but in the second bend there was a wall of dust and I went straight on. I was lucky there were no rocks or trees to hit. I didn't expect as much dust in the air, but I can't change that. Even with three minute gaps, conditions were bad. It should be better this afternoon with a stronger breeze."

Further back, MINI WRT duo Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke round out the top six, ahead of the M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta's of Mads Ostberg and Henning Solberg. Evgeny Novikov, who is running in a Citroen DS3 WRC in Spain, is ninth, with SWRC leader Nasser Al-Attiyah tenth.

In terms of retirements, SS1 claimed both Petter Solberg and Ken Block. Solberg ripped a wheel off, while Block damaged his steering. F1 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen then joined them on the sidelines in SS3, stopping with reported engine problems.

In the support categories, Patrik Flodin leads the way in the PWRC - 11.3 seconds ahead of Michal Kosciuszko - while as mentioned, Al-Attiyah is top in the SWRC, 4.5 seconds up on Juho Hanninen. Hanninen has eased off slightly after SWRC title rival Ott Tanak went out in SS1, when he hit the same rock that claimed Petter Solberg.

The opening leg now concludes with a repeat-run through this morning's three tests. However, following the problems with hanging dust, the gaps between the cars has been increased by a minute - from 3 minutes to 4.

SS4, the 25.74 kilometre-run through Pesells 2, is due to start at 16.42 hours local time [15.42 hours British time].

Rally de Espana: Overall standings after Stage 3 (Top 10):

1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC 52mins 28.9secs M
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 05.3secs M
3. Sebastien Ogier Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +00mins 11.9secs M
4. Mikko Hirvonen Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 36.5secs M
5. Dani Sordo MINI WRT John Cooper Works +00mins 57.4secs
6. Kris Meeke MINI WRT John Cooper Works +01mins 24.6secs
7. Mads Ostberg M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 32.5secs M
8. Henning Solberg M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 48.6secs
9. Evgeny Novikov Citroen DS3 WRC +02mins 19.0secs M
10. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta S2000 +02mins 31.5secs S


11. Juho Hanninen Skoda Fabia S2000 +02mins 36.0secs S
12. Craig Breen Ford Fiesta S2000 +02mins 36.5secs S
14. Matthew Wilson M-Sport Stobart Ford Fiesta RS WRC +02mins 53.1secs M
15. Dennis Kuipers FERM Powertools Ford Fiesta RS WRC +03mins 01.0secs M
17. Khalid Al-Qassimi Team Abu Dhabi Fiesta RS WRC +03mins 35.6secs M
19. Patrik Flodin Subaru Impreza +03mins 43.9secs P
21. Peter van Merksteijn Van Merksteijn Citroen DS3 WRC +03mins 53.2secs M
29. Federico Villagra Munchi's Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +05mins 46.9secs M

SWRC standings after Stage 3 - Top 3:

1. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta S2000 55mins 00.4secs S
2. Juho Hanninen Skoda Fabia S2000 +00mins 04.5secs S
3. Craig Breen Ford Fiesta S2000 +00mins 05.0secs S

PWRC standings after Stage 3 - Top 3:

1. Patrik Flodin Subaru Impreza 56mins 12.8secs P
2. Michal Kosciuszko Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X +00mins 11.3secs P
3. Benito Guerra Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +01mins 04.7secs P

Notable retirements:

SS1. Petter Solberg PSWRT Citroen DS3 WRC Broken wheel M
SS1. Ken Block Monster WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC Broken steering M
SS3. Kimi Raikkonen ICE1 Racing Citroen DS3 WRC Engine M

all times unofficial