Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has taken the initiative on Rally Finland and following the first three stages near Lahti leads by 7.3 seconds.

Loeb, who was quickest on Wednesday in qualifying, took the lead immediately this evening, outpacing Petter Solberg by 1.6 seconds. The Frenchman then had to settle for second in SS2, the short 2 kilometre Jokimaa super special stage, albeit only 0.1 seconds behind 'Hollywood'.

However in the final test of the day, the 14.22 km Mynnila test, the 38-year-old went flat-out and was 3.2 seconds up on Mads Ostberg - and 7.7 seconds up on Solberg, who slips down to sixth.

"After going fastest in qualifying, I cannot but be pleased to have continued my good form and to lead the rally this evening!" Loeb said. "I wanted to set off at a strong pace on SS1, because the level of grip was good and I felt very good in the car. I am especially pleased with my time on SS3, because it went perfectly. I pushed hard and didn't hold back at all. I couldn't have gone any faster!

"As confirmed during the tests we did last weekend, the DS3 WRC is ideal for these roads. We mustn't get too carried away, however, as this first leg was just a taster for what is to come. The two remaining legs will be much more difficult and the other leading contenders are just a few seconds behind."

Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile tie for second, the latter complaining he didn't have the right rhythm in SS1. He was also surprised to drop 5 seconds in the final test.

"I was a little too careful in the opening stage, but the second test was fine," said Latvala. "I thought I drove well in the last stage, but the clock showed that I dropped five seconds. That was frustrating because I don't understand where the time went.

"I tried a new suspension set-up so perhaps I need to think if that was the reason. I pushed hard, so I also need to consider whether I drove too sideways as a result and lost time. The gap is small but tomorrow is much longer and more demanding and I don't want to concede more seconds in the morning."

"Today's result is pretty much in line with my plans," Hirvonen added. "Last year, I was over two minutes behind the leader at the end of day one. This time, I'm only seven seconds adrift so I have definitely made progress!

"I didn't want to take any unnecessary risks in the first few kilometres, although I did run wide onto the verge a few times on Mynnila. I'll have to stay on the road tomorrow! I am sure that it's going to be an interesting scrap to watch."

Behind, Mads Ostberg made a strong start and the second best time in SS3 hauled him up from sixth to fourth, just 0.2 seconds off Latvala and Hirvonen. Thierry Neville is next up for the Citroen Junior WRT, one place in front of Solberg, who struggled in SS3.

"I decided to make a small change to the car's set-up before the final stage, making it slightly lower to try to improve the performance even further. Unfortunately it didn't work and I lost a few seconds," Petter explained. "Because today's leg was so short, it was the right time to try something like that. If it didn't work the time loss was always going to be small. Tomorrow I'll go back to my previous settings and I'll continue to push hard."

"The car moved around a lot on the first stage and I was almost surprised to finish third," Neuville added. "I think I lost a lot a bit of time at the start of SS3, because my pace notes weren't accurate enough. I wanted to start the race at a good pace, so it's very good to be among the leaders."

Further back, Chris Atkinson has begun well on his return to the WRC and he ends the leg in seventh, 6.4 seconds off P6 and 2.6 seconds up on Evgeny Novikov in eighth. Ott Tanak trails his M-Sport Ford team-mate in ninth, with Jari Ketomaa tenth, also in a Fiesta RS WRC car, and currently on course for the final point, followed by Martin Prokop and the Volkswagen Motorsport-run Skoda Fabia S2000 of Sebastien Ogier.

"I am really pleased with my start," Atkinson remarked. "I've lost a little time, but it's still reasonable given my lack of experience with Citroen. I have to improve my driving to iron out the minor mistakes."

In the support categories, Esapekka Lappi has taken the lead in the SWRC, 1.5 seconds up on Hayden Paddon, while Elfyn Evans heads the WRC Academy, 2.8 seconds in front of Alastair Fisher.

Rally Finland now continues on Friday and the second leg is based much closer to Jyv?skyl?. Competitors restart at 06.30 [local time] and tackle three loops of tests, mainly west of the city. The final two loops are identical and the day then ends with a short super special stage at the Killeri trotting. Day 2 includes nine stages in total covering a competitive distance of 133.82km.

Rally Finland: Overall standings after Stage 3 (Top 10):

1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC 15mins 07.1secs M
2. Mikko Hirvonen Citroen Total WRT DS3 WRC +00mins 07.3secs M
= Jari-Matti Latvala Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 07.3secs M
4. Mads Ostberg Adapta WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 07.5secs M
5. Thierry Neuville Citroen Junior WRT DS3 WRC +00mins 09.0secs M
6. Petter Solberg Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 09.2secs M
7. Chris Atkinson Qatar WRT Citroen DS3 WRC +00mins 15.6secs M
8. Evgeny Novikov M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 18.2secs M
9. Ott Tanak M-Sport Ford WRT Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 21.1secs M
10. Jari Ketomaa Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 33.1secs

Others

11. Martin Prokop Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 37.8secs
12. Sebastien Ogier VW Motorsport Skoda Fabia S2000 +00mins 41.1secs
13. Esapekka Lappi Ford Fiesta S2000 +00mins 44.7secs S
14. Matti Rantanen Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 45.9secs
15. Hayden Paddon Skoda Fabia S2000 +00mins 46.2secs S
16. P-G Andersson Proton Satria Neo S2000 +00mins 57.3secs S
17. Ken Block Monster WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00mins 59.1secs
21. Andreas Mikkelsen VW Motorsport Skoda Fabia S2000 +01mins 10.5secs
23. Armindo Araujo WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC +01mins 22.5secs
24. Riku Tahko MINI John Cooper Works WRC +01mins 23.8secs
26. Sebastian Lindholm Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01mins 32.9secs
46. Paulo Nobre WRC MINI Team Portugal John Cooper Works WRC +02mins 35.2secs

SWRC standings after Stage 3 - Top 3:

1. Esapekka Lappi Ford Fiesta S2000 15mins 51.8secs S
2. Hayden Paddon Skoda Fabia S2000 +00mins 01.5secs S
3. P-G Andersson Proton Satria Neo S2000 +00mins 12.6secs S

Notable retirements:

None.

all times unofficial