Esapekka Lappi underlined the serious competition in the FIA European Rally Championship by snatching first place on the final stage of leg one to lead Rally Liepja by 2.6secs heading into Sunday's closing six stages in Latvia.

While Lappi is on top for Finland in the overall classification, meanwhile, Czech driver Jan ern? heads another close battle for glory among the ERC Junior contenders after he reclaimed first place from Steve R?kland on Saturday's closing 32.03-kilometre night test. Siim Plangi heads the FIA Production Car Cup division with ern? also in front in ERC 2WD. Glamour model Inessa Tushkanova is the ERC Ladies' Trophy leader at the overnight halt.

"It's been a good day," said Lappi, who trailed Vasily Gryazin by 15.1secs starting stage six, "Vasily has been doing a great job, but I have been trying to come to the front. It's quite enjoyable when there is a clean line and it's a wider road. You can push and this is nice."

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Heavy overnight snow had coated the high-speed gravel stages and put a big onus on running order with the drivers at the head of the field struggling with a lack of grip as they battled to create a clear line. It meant those starting further back benefited from a more consistent surface.

Gryazin, who opted to run 17th on the road as the last of the priority drivers at the start selection ceremony in Liepja yesterday, enjoyed the best of the stage conditions compared to his rivals. Coupled with his natural pace, the 20-year-old Russian was fastest on stages two and three to build a lead of more than 30secs despite a minor gearbox issue on the second test causing concern.

But with road position less of a factor when the stages were repeated in the afternoon, Lappi - who had been running six places ahead of Gryazin - began to make his mark with a trio of stage bests as Gryazin remained firmly in contention with a faultless display in his Pirelli-shod Sports Racing Technologies Ford Fiesta S2000.

Craig Breen snatched third from Kajetan Kajetanowicz on stage five, but the Peugeot Rally Academy driver was far from happy with the set-up of his 207 S2000. Kajetanowicz, meanwhile, spent much of the day adapting to Michelin's new-generation studded tyres, which he'd never used in competition before. The LOTOS Ford Fiesta R5 driver is 36.7secs behind Breen overnight.

Lappi's Michelin-shod ?KODA team-mate Sepp Wiegand, from Germany, haemorrhaged time in the morning snow running seventh on the road but regained some confidence - and pace - this afternoon to complete day one in fifth position, 4.2secs ahead of Plangi.

Fresh from his heroic run to second place on Rallye Monte-Carlo last month, Bryan Bouffier held top spot after winning the opening stage, but a mistake three corners into the second test would ultimately trigger his early exit at the wheel of a PH Sport Citro?n DS3 RRC.

"We went wide in a narrow part and hit a straw bale with the front of the car," Bouffier revealed, "We tried to continue, but the radiator was broken and the engine started to overheat. For sure it's very disappointing but I have to accept this because it was my fault."

There were four different stage winners and three changes of lead in the ERC Production Car Cup. Estonian Siim Plangi is in front overnight but, with Lithuanian Mrtin? Svilis 4.2secs behind, Plangi is far from secure in first place. Vitaliy Pushkar is third in class after day one, but there were problems for Korn?l Luk?cs and Hermann Neubauer. Luk?cs was hit by an intercom glitch, while Neubauer lost some four minutes puncturing a tyre on his Subaru Impreza when he cut a corner too tightly on stage five. Last year's winner, Vytautas ?vedas, retired on the opening stage with a broken driveshaft on his Mitsubishi Lancer. Martin Hudec was hampered by brake problems.

The inaugural ERC Junior Championship got off to a thrilling start as 15 of the sport's brightest young talents impressed in the tricky conditions. Jan ern? (Peugeot 208 R2) moved into an early lead with a brace of stage wins, but slipped back on stage five when Steve R?kland went faster in his Ford Fiesta R2. But R?kland's lead wouldn't last after stud retention issues took hold and cost the Norwegian more than 30 seconds. He's 26.2secs behind ern? and 18.7secs down on Immonen, who was fastest on the final two tests and trails erny by 7.5secs.

Petter Kristiansen, who was fastest on stage three, is 1.1secs behind R?kland in fourth with Mattias Olsson fifth in his battle-scared Fiesta, which was also been saddled by a brake issue. St?phane Lefebvre is sixth overnight with Andrea Crugnola seventh and Aleks Zawada eighth. Jean-Mathieu Leandri is ninth, one place ahead of Fabrizio Andolfi. Chris Ingram nursed a bent rear beam on his Renault Twingo to complete the first day in eleventh having also lost time on the final stage with a puncture and damaged brakes. Marijan Griebel crashed his Opel ADAM on stage one, Kevin van Deijne dropped out with a broken gearbox on stage two, electrical issues led to Florin Tincescu's exit prior to stage four while Tom?? Posp??ilik went off the road on the second stage.

Sunday's route consists of a further three repeated tests, this time centred on Aizpute 50 kilometres north of host city Liepja.