Colin McRae headed the field as the Acropolis Rally showed exactly why it has a reputation as the toughest event on the calendar.

The Scot trailed only for the opening stage at Skourta, before using consecutive fastest times to climb above early leader Marcus Gronholm and stamp his authority on the day one of the three day event. The Scot benefited from running at number five, with most of the road debris cleared away by those starting ahead of him, and knows that he could drop back tomorrow.

Despite his seemingly strong lead, McRae suffered a handful of minor problems en route to claiming three of the day's five special stages. Run-flat inserts in his tyres allowed the Ford driver to get his Focus WRC to the end of each affected run without too much time being lost, and the Scot acknowledged that he had been luckier than most.

''The day went perfectly,'' he smiled, ''We had a couple of punctures, but that is inevitable with so many big rocks on the road, and we lost no time. I'm trying to drive quickly where I can but, on the roughest sections, I'm just aiming to pick my way around the rocks.

''I've never known such a dramatic opening day on this event. You always expect things to happen, but it seems that everyone apart from Carlos [Sainz] and I was in the wars. I wanted a good clear run, and that's what I got.''

Second at the end of the day fell to Ford team-mate Sainz, who also seemed to enjoy a relatively trouble-free day. The Spaniard has yet to claim a stage win, but has quietly picked up top five places on every run to lie just over half a minute behind McRae.

Peugeot's Francois Delecour held a surprise third place as the cars arrived at the overnight halt in Itea. The Frenchman was well down the order after the opening stage but, like Sainz, has put in consistent results since then to climb above both Subarus, and team-mate Gronholm, by the end of the day. He put the margin between him and the leader down to having been hampered by driving through the dust thrown up by Toni Gardemeister's SEAT for much of the day.

Subaru twins Juha Kankkunen and Richard Burns lie fourth and fifth respectively, both having been caused problems by running early on each stage. Kankkunen admitted to having been careful for most of the day, and took the opportunity to run different tyre compounds to his team-mate as research for future stages. Championship leader Burns was first on the road, and also suffered problems with a broken front shock absorber which cost him further time.

''I can't do anything about today, but I'm relatively happy where I am,'' he said, ''The heat is the biggest problem, and there's no doubt that its affecting my reactions.''

Co-driver Robert Reid had to be attended to by the Prodrive medical team on arrival at the end of the final stage, having suffered the early stages of heat exhaustion. The crews blamed the FIA ruling - introduced in time for the rally - that full fireproof overalls had to be worn by both members of the team, despite the searing heat in Greece. An attempt to have the ruling overturned for the event was thrown out by officials.

Behind the Burns car, Irishman Steven Finlay put in a storming effort to take sixth on the road overnight with his privateer Focus, while Subaru Allstar Toshihiro Arai was seventh in his Impreza. Prodrive-run team-mate Krzysztof Holowczyc was forced out of the event, however, when a loss of power steering pressure caused an injury to his arm and made driving difficult.

Armin Schwarz was also in the wars, but was the only other recognised works driver in the top ten at the end of the day. The German was suffering from the early stages of flu', but was determined that he was going to carry on while the possibility of championship points remained. He suffered road penalties while the Skoda team changed seals on the differentials, but still managed to take ninth spot overall. Team-mate Luis Climent pulled out after losing a wheel on SS3.

With privateers Abdullah Bakhashab and John Papadimitriou filling the final top ten spots, eleventh was the best Alister McRae could hope for overnight. However, having achieved just that, the Scot was also forced out of the event after his steering rack began to require repeated attention. Hyundai team leader Kenneth Eriksson had swapped decent stage times with the Scot until having to retire with engine problems on the road section following SS3.

Biggest casualties of the day, however, were both Mitsubishis. Freddy Loix made an early exit after a hub shaft broke on his Carisma GT on the first stage, but more drama was to follow as reigning champion Tommi Makinen abandoned the event with a similar problem on SS4. The Finn had already swiped a wall with his Lancer, losing a wheel on the previous stage and, when a repeat happened without contact within the hour, had no option but to pull out.

''It is very difficult to say exactly what has happened before analysing the parts back at base,'' said Ralliart team boss Andrew Cowan, ''but it would seem that the hub shaft part of the car has broken, and that Tommi and Freddy have retired with the same problem. It's a completely freak incident - this has never happened before. We are obviously very disappointed, and must investigate further. We believe, however, that it is a component failure with a batch of parts we have here in Greece.''

Still in the rally, but running well down the order, original leader Gronholm only had himself to blame for his demise. The Finn rolled his Peugeot when his pace-notes failed to correctly call an obstacle, but was able to rejoin despite the damage. He and co-driver Timo Rautiainen were uninjured in the incident, but Gronholm later cut his hand on the broken window while in service.

''I cut a slow corner, but there was a concrete post hidden in some bushes and obviously it wasn't in my notes,'' he admitted ruefully, ''The car rolled very quickly.''

Both SEATs are running in the same vicinity as the 206 WRC, with Frenchman Didier Auriol lucky to escape a frightening incident when his throttle stuck open on SS3. With only the transmission able to control the car's speed, the SEAT quickly began to overheat, and the engine subsequently switched to a 'safe' mode to prevent further problems. This cost Auriol enough time to drop him to twelfth at the end of the day, but he admitted that he was lucky to still be in the event after a catalogue of problems.

''The conditions are what we expected - extremely difficult,'' he revealed, ''The car has been good but, about 1.5km before the end of stage three, the throttle stuck open and we almost went off the road. Then, on the road section after that, the steering broke! The mechanics did a good job to fix it but, as we left service, it broke again, so they had to change it again and we collected 1min 40secs of road penalties. We could be in fourth...''

Team-mate Gardemeister is 26th after also suffering steering failure - ''my arms feel like lead and my hands are blistered and burnt. It felt like there a hundred corners in the stag,'' he said later - while the third 'works' Focus of Petter Solberg could do no better than 28th, despite sharing fastest time on stage four. The Norwegian had left the road on the previous stage and, with none of the spectators apparently willing to help him get his car off the bank, had to resort to getting down on his knees to beg for assistance!

Leader McRae had a relatively uneventful day by comparison, but knows that tomorrow will be another day. He runs first on the road from the start of stage six [Zeli] at 07-47 BST.

Stage winners - Acropolis Rally - Leg One:

SS1 Skourta Marcus Gronholm 11mins 54.6secs SS2 Klidi Colin McRae 5mins 40.1secs SS3 Thiva Colin McRae 16mins 23.1secs SS4 Kineta Marcus Gronholm/Petter Solberg 5mins 20.7secs SS5 Agii Theodoroi Colin McRae 24mins 47.6secs

Rally Leaders - Leg One:

1. Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC 01hrs 04mins 09.6secs +00hrs 00mins 00.0secs
2. Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 01hrs 04mins 48.1secs +00hrs 00mins 38.5secs
3. Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC 01hrs 05mins 22.5secs +00hrs 01mins 12.9secs
4. Juha Kankkunen Subaru Impreza WRC2000 01hrs 06mins 10.4secs +00hrs 02mins 00.8secs
5. Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 01hrs 06mins 18.5secs +00hrs 02mins 08.9secs
6. Steven Finlay Ford Focus WRC 01hrs 07mins 36.2secs +00hrs 03mins 26.6secs
7. Toshiro Arai Subaru Impreza 01hrs 07mins 39.6secs +00hrs 03mins 30.0secs
8. Abdullah Bakhashab Toyota Corolla WRC 01hrs 08mins 10.0secs +00hrs 04mins 00.4secs
9. Armin Schwarz Skoda Octavia WRC 01hrs 08mins 13.8secs +00hrs 04mins 04.2secs
10. John Papadimitriou Subaru Impreza 01hrs 08mins 31.8secs +00hrs 04mins 22.2secs

Group N

Claudio Menzi Mitsubishi Lancer 01hrs 09mins 50.9secs