Peugeot benefited from other running ahead of it on the opening day of action in New Zealand, and held first and third places by the time the rally returned to Auckland for the overnight halt.

Francois Delecour, who would have been among the first to claim that he had no chance of winning the event having not been to New Zealand for several years, found himself at the top of the leaderboard as early as stage one, as his lowly start position allowed him to run on dry, but gravel-free, roads.

The early runners, by contrast, suffered badly as the half-expected rains failed to materialise, leaving great clouds of dust in their wake as they effectively swept the loose surface off the roads.

World championship leader Richard Burns was the hardest hit, the Subaru driver running first on the road. The Englishman admitted that conditions weren't perhaps as bad as he had expected, but remained concerned lest it should rain on either of the following days. With a wet road lessening the problem for tomorrow's front-runners, Burns reckoned he would have a hard task to reclaim the minute he had lost while acting as roadsweeper on day one, and may struggle to break back into the point-scoring positions. He currently occupies eighth place.

Back at the front, Delecour acknowledged the fact that it may be his turn to suffer on day two, but was keen to repeat his belief that he was never really expected to win the event anyway. Despite this, he insisted at the end of the day, he still felt that he would have been leading if he had been running first on the road, such was his delight at the handling of his 206WRC.

Peugeot team-mate Marcus Gronholm is likely to be the French team's favoured man on the rally, given his loftier position in the world championship, and looked likely to challenge Delecour right from the word 'go' The pair ran one and two through the opening stage, and both added other successes during the day to maintain a strong presence in the top three. The Finn suffered slight suspension damage on a jump in the first stage, but bounced back to win the third, and now lies just 13secs off the pace.

Between the two Peugeots comes Petter Solberg's second string Ford Focus, the young Norwegian again having recorded fastest stage times on an unfamiliar event. He is three seconds better off the Gronholm, and appears to have no fear of running at the head of the field on day two.

''I've got good notes for this event, and I'm able to run my own set-up,'' he explained, ''I'm under no pressure and, even if Peugeot slows its drivers and I find myself running first on the road tomorrow, that will just be another valuable lesson.''

Solberg once again upstaged both his senior team-mates in the Ford camp, just as he had on the final day of the Acropolis Rally last month. Colin McRae did his bit to level the score with the Norwegian by winning both of the runs of Manukau's superspecial at the end of the day but, with just 2.1km to play with, his gains over the rest of the field were severely limited. The Scot did enough to prevent himself from being the first of the runners to fall a minute off the lead but, like Burns, is hoping that the weather stays fair for day two.

''All I can say about today is that I am looking forward to tomorrow,'' he said, shortly after having to repair a fractured turbo wastegate with whatever he could lay his hands on.

Team-mate Carlos Sainz is better placed than McRae in terms of time - if not necessarily road position - after a trying day playing with suspension and tyres. The Spaniard, like several of his rivals, found his rubber down to the canvas on the long fifth and sixth stages, having already had to stiffen the suspension after the opening stage. He is fourth overall, some 30secs adrift of Delecour.

Fellow veteran Juha Kankkunen found out how testing the stages were on tyres when he punctured on SS6, but had enough in hand to preserve his fifth overall, while Kenneth Eriksson also experienced difficulties in the same area. Nevertheless, the Hyundai driver runs in seventh spot after he and team-mate Alister McRae showed the Accent WRC's potential on several stages. McRae is twelfth after a turbo problem re-occurred on the fifth stage.

Mitsubishi had another difficult day, but at least both cars survived all eight stages, unlike their early exit in Greece. As expected, world champion Tommi Makinen was generally faster than team-mate Freddy Loix, although the Belgian surprised with better times on both the superspecial stages at the end of the day.

Makinen complained of oversteer in the early stages after failing to find the right balance on his Lancer, and both cars needed attention before SS5. Neither was significantly better after taking on a new diff and gearbox respectively, however, and currently lie in ninth and 16th places.

''It's possible that there is a problem with the differential ECU,'' admitted Ralliart engineer David Hudson, ''There is something not right with the software that we have yet to identify, but we are working on it.''

Worse problems were to befall the final works team present in New Zealand, after Toni Gardemeister destroyed his SEAT on the day's opening stage. The Finn, who finished third on the event in 1999, had apparently mis-noted a jump on his recce, and traversed the gap between crest and bank without returning to earth. Although the Cordoba was destroyed, the crew was thankfully unhurt.

Team-mate Didier Auriol showed his greater experience by at least keeping the car on the road until the end of the day. He, too, suffered turbo problems along the way, and admitted to some frustration at his tenth position.

The Teams' Cup competition is led overnight by Toshihiro Arai, still happy after his fourth overall on the Acropolis, while Australian Cody Crocker controlled Group N in a manner similar to Delecour in the WRC class. The Subaru driver is not exactly dominating, however, and the mix of locals and fancied championship runners lie close behind.

Stage winners - Rally New Zealand - Leg One:

SS1 Te Akau North Francois Delecour 18mins 08.1secs SS2 Maungatawhiri Petter Solberg 3mins 41.7secs SS3 Te Papatapu 1 Marcus Gronholm 11mins 13.6secs SS4 Te Hutewai Petter Solberg 8mins 06.3secs SS5 Whaanga Coast Francois Delecour 21mins 23.7secs SS6 Te Papatapu 2 Francois Delecour 11mins 04.2secs SS7 Manukau Super 1 Colin McRae 1min 22.3secs SS8 Manukau Super 2 Colin McRae 1min 20.5secs

Rally Leaders - Leg One:

1. Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC 1hr 16mins 36.2secs +00mins 00.0secs
2. Petter Solberg Ford Focus WRC 1hr 16mins 45.9secs +00mins 09.7secs
3. Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 1hr 16mins 49.4secs +00mins 13.2secs
4. Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 1hr 17mins 06.3secs +00mins 30.1secs
5 Juha Kankkunen Subaru Impreza WRC 1hr 17mins 28.1secs +00mins 51.9secs
6. Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC 1hr 17mins 35.8secs +00mins 59.6secs
7 Kenneth Eriksson Hyundai Accent WRC 1hr 17mins 36.3secs +01mins 00.1secs
8. Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 1hr 17mins 42.9secs +01mins 06.7secs
9. Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6 1hr 18mins 00.8secs +01mins 24.6secs
10. Didier Auriol SEAT Cordoba WRC 1hr 18mins 14.1secs +01mins 37.9secs

11. Possum Bourne Subaru Impreza WRC98 1hr 18mins 18.2secs +01mins 42.0secs
12. Alister McRae Hyundai Accent WRC 1hr 18mins 22.2secs +01mins 46.0secs
13. Geoff Argyle Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 18mins 44.7secs +02mins 08.5secs
15. Toshihiro Arai Subaru Impreza 1hr 19mins 17.4secs +02mins 41.2secs
16. Freddy Loix Mitsubishi Carisma GT 1hr 19mins 23.3secs +02mins 47.1secs
17. Bruce Herbert Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 19mins 25.9secs +02mins 49.7secs

Rtd Toni Gardemeister SEAT Cordoba WRC acc. on stage one

Group N

14. Cody Crocker Subaru Impreza 1hr 18mins 58.9secs +02mins 22.7secs
18. Manfred Stohl Mitsubishi Carisma 1hr 19mins 34.5secs +02mins 58.3secs
19. Hamed Al Wahaibi Subaru Impreza 1hr 19mins 53.4secs +03mins 17.2secs

[Times and information courtesy Mitsubishi Motors and FIA]