Reigning world champion Marcus Gronholm started the defence of his driver's title in fine style on today's opening leg of Rallye Monte Carlo, round one of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Gronholm and his co-driver Timo Rautiainen were never headed throughout the opening loop of six stages in the mountains around Gap, north of the rally's Monaco base.
Gronholm admitted he felt more at home running studded tyres on the snow and ice, which littered the morning's tests, than using slick tyres in the afternoon.
Citroen's Sebastien Loeb
was clearly at home on the drier asphalt, blasting his way up the leaderboard to end the day in second place, 20.6 seconds off the lead. Loeb was fastest on stage five and joint fastest with his team-mate Colin McRae on the sixth. McRae was third on his debut in the Xsara WRC, having held second earlier in the leg.
The opening day of this year's Rallye Monte Carlo went badly for the Subaru team, when both cars retired on stage five. Petter Solberg
had shown well early on, holding second at lunchtime.
The three official Peugeot 206 WRCs ran without problems, although Gronholm did have a rear puncture on SS5. He soon put aside his dislike for the stages though to lead the rally from the start. Gronholm edged his way clear on the opening test, but then stunned his rivals with an amazing time through the second stage, beating everybody by 29.4 seconds.
Gronholm dropped time to Loeb through the afternoon, but continued to lead after the two longest stages of the rally: the 47.27km Plan de Vitrolles-Faye stage, despite hitting a bridge and puncturing a rear wheel on SS5.
Richard Burns was fourth overnight, not having felt entirely at home in the car through the morning loop of stages. He was happier in the long stages, which contained a good deal less snow and ice, than the first four tests.
Gilles Panizzi had received a one-minute penalty before the start of the rally, for failing to have the GPS system working properly on the recce. The Frenchman struggled to get to grips with the slippery conditions. He dropped time throughout the day and felt the car was set-up wrong for the stages. He ended day one in 14th place.