Ford's Colin McRae has dominated the opening day of the fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rally Argentina. Having set two fastest times on yesterday's evening's superspecials on the outskirts of Cordoba, the Scot topped the timesheets on today's first three stages to open up an advantage of nearly a minute.
The battles are much closer behind the 1995 world champion, with Richard Burns, Tommi Mäkinen and Carlos Sainz involved in a scrap for second overall and the Peugeots of Didier Auriol and Marcus Grönholm recovering after slow starts. With mist and low cloud an ever-present threat, and occasional damp, muddy patches on the roads, the South American terrain has provided a stern test for the sport's top stars.
The Focus WRC01s have suffered no major mechanical problems today, although team mechanics had to repair François Delecour's example after he rolled on the day's first stage.
Colin McRae has been in inspired form, as the Scot followed up his two fastest times at yesterday evening's superspecial to quickly build a lead of more than half a minute. His team-mate Carlos Sainz fought off the pain of his back injury to hold a top six place for much of the day. The third Focus, driven by François Delecour, did not fare as well - barely two kilometres into today's opening stage, the Frenchman was caught out by a deep rut in a hairpin and put the car on its roof. Spectators returned the Focus onto its wheels but Delecour lost further time when he had to cope with a broken windscreen.
Colin McRae said: ''It's been going quite well. I was actually a little surprised on today's first stage, because I thought our time would be just respectable and it was way quicker than anyone else. Our lead looks good already but this is the sort of rally where you could lose it easily by clipping a rock. We can't relax yet, although I have to admit today's gone much better than I expected.''
Carlos Sainz added: ''The fog on today's first stage was very bad and I lost a bit of time there. My back problem makes my leg sore and although the painkillers are helping, it's far from perfect. All I can do is keep fighting.''
At Subaru Richard Burns suffered power steering problems on today's third stage, and then he lost the rear brakes on his Impreza WRC2001 on the following test. He hit further power steering dramas on the day's final pair of stages. The other Impreza drivers - Petter Solberg
and Toshihiro Arai - reported no significant technical problems, although Solberg felt his choice of tyres for the middle loop of stages was too soft.
Richard Burns eased ahead of his team-mate Petter Solberg
this morning, despite spinning in fifth gear on today's first stage. The Briton quickly became embroiled in the frantic battle for second overall, and fastest time on today's fourth stage moved him 15 seconds clear of Tommi Mäkinen in that position. Solberg, meanwhile, has been concentrating on staying relaxed and paying little attention to the timesheets as he strives to gain mileage and score a morale-boosting finish.
Richard Burns said: ''The fog was pretty bad this morning. On the first stage, there was a left-right combination of corners and I went into the 'left' too quickly. Fortunately the road was wide enough to do a complete spin because we were in fifth gear at the time.''