Peugeot driver Richard Burns has stamped his authority on the 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rally New Zealand, which began in earnest this morning.
After a ceremonial start in Auckland yesterday evening, today's route comprised six stages in the lush New Zealand countryside and Burns was fastest on four of them to arrive at this evening's end of Leg One in Auckland just under 20 seconds clear of his team-mate Harri Rovanpera.
New Zealand's smooth gravel roads had been expected to punish the frontrunners with thick coatings of loose gravel on the surface for them to sweep clear for later crews. But two of the top three contenders after the first six stages were Burns and his title rival Marcus Gronholm, who'd had to run ahead of everybody.
One of the fancied runners, Colin McRae, was less fortunate, however. His faint world title hopes finally ended when he slid off the road on today's fourth stage.
Behind Peugeot's three cars, Finn Jani Paasonen scored the first fastest time for Mitsubishi's Lancer World Rally Car since its launch in October last year as he took advantage of cleaned roads to hold fourth overall. He was in close fight on the timesheets with Subaru drivers Tommi Mäkinen and Petter Solberg
at the end of Leg One.
The 206 WRCs of Richard Burns, Harri Rovanpera and Gilles Panizzi have been reliable today, but Marcus Gronholm's car has hit a few niggles.
It lost hydraulic pressure on the day's second stage, spraying some fluids over the car's windscreen. Gronholm attempted to halt the leak by tying a towel around the main pipe for the two stages before lunchtime service.
On the day's fifth stage, his car refused to move off the startline with a slipping clutch, but he managed to ease it into the test and after nearly two kilometres of gentle driving, the problem disappeared.
Burns had expected to be well down the top 10 after today's stages but instead, the Englishman set fastest times on all of the opening four stages to arrive at this evening's end of leg with a lead of nearly 20 seconds over his team-mate Harri Rovanpera.