The first day of the Neste Rally Finland saw a titanic battle between Series leader Richard Burns and title hopeful Marcus Gronholm with the Peugeot driver just edging ahead.

Such was the domination of Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm on the first day of the Neste Rally Finland that when four time Champion Tommy Makinen won the final stage on his home rally, people were shocked! That is because they had come to expect either the Subaru of Peugeot driver to finish top, as they had done in every other stage of the day.

Local boy Gronholm started the first of the days ten stages as favourite, especially with Burns running ahead of him on the road. However the route was still slightly damp from overnight rain and much of the advantage that Gronholm would have gained had the route been dry, was lost.

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The short seven kilometre Kuohu test opened the day and Gronholm was immediately on the pace, performing some very lurid early morning slides on his way to fastest time overall. Burns was just nine tenths of a second down and also throwing caution to the wind while the privateer Toyota of Harri Rovenpara was a highly impressive third and only one tenth of a second slower than Burns.

Others chose a slightly more cautious tactic on the treacherous roads including Ford drivers Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae, Juha Kankkunen in the second Subaru and both SEAT drivers who were still unsure of the handling characteristics of the new Evo3 Cordoba.

Sainz was forced to be even more cautious on the 20 kilometre second stage at Parkkola when a malfunctioning ECU reduced the Focus to a crawl for much of the stage. The Spaniard was outside the top 100 at the end of the stage but vowed to continue and rose dramatically to 24th place by the end of the day, albeit six minutes behind Gronholm.

Gronholm repeated his stage one victory on the second, third , fourth and fifth tests of the day and looked simply irresistible behind the wheel of the sleek Peugeot 206 WRC save for one minor incident on SS5 when he slid into a ditch after hitting a slippery section of road.

If Gronholm was pushing in the nimble Peugeot then Burns was mesmeric in the far broader Impreza WRC, a car which nearly failed the mandatory FIA width test prior to the start of SS1. The English driver lost a total of eight seconds during the course of the opening five stages and was not once more than four seconds slower on a stage than Gronholm. Only Francois Delacour was able to break the 1-2 mould during the first five stages when he equalled Burns' time on SS4 and as the mammoth field of more than 120 cars began the final five stages of the day, third placed Rovenpara was more than 15 seconds behind the fleeing Peugeot.

With a classic battle developing up-front, the scrap for third place was almost overlooked as Rovenpara fought to hold of a closely packed bunch including Petter Solberg and Colin McRae in the two remaining competitive Fords. Solberg was making a very good impression in the first rally where "I am allowed to go flat out," and was keeping the pressure on Rovenpara in third.

However the young driver's charge was ended spectacularly on SS8 when a slightly inaccurate pace note saw the Ford enter a corner too quickly and Solberg was sent barrel rolling off the road and into retirement.

Burns was finally able to oust Gronholm from the top of the time-sheets on the 13 kilometre Palsankyla test when the Subaru driver took advantage of a wetter road surface to head the Ford of McRae who also beat Gronholm. The Peugeot driver was caught out by a brief rain-storm again on SS7 and was only fourth fastest although he still retained a six second lead with three stages to run. A possible wheel vibration was blamed for Gronholm's sudden drop in pace (two seconds to Burns in two stages!) although it appeared to have cured itself in time for the Finn to set best time on SS8.

Burns retaliated on SS9 and felt that with Gronholm running first on the road tomorrow in addition to rain being forecast, the result was still hanging in the balance. More than 160 kilometres have to be covered on Saturday and with the top nine being covered by less than a minute, the 50th running of the Rally of Finland could be one of the closest ever.

Rovenpara remained in a superb third place throughout the day and currently sits eight seconds clear of the sole remaining competitive Ford of McRae. Juha Kankkunen is fifth, more than 40 seconds behind Gronholm on a day when the veteran Finn never really got to grips with the conditions.

Tommi Makinen's Super Special victory at the end of the day did little to lift his spirits in the ageing Mitsubishi Lancer although both he and Sebastien Lindholm in the second Peugeot are within ten seconds of Kankkunen in fifth.

Francois Delacour spent much of the day finding his feet on the difficult terrain but he was still able to hold off Markko Martin and the leading SEAT of Toni Gardemeister for eighth place. Gardemeister's performance in the largely untested Cordoba Evo3 was worthy of some kind of award for valour as the yellow machine was clearly unstable and was undergoing many new teething troubles.

Didier Auriol in the second SEAT suffered a spin on SS6 and was 15th overall, sandwiched between the two Hyundai Accent's of Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson in a car he described as "virtually undrivable."

Group N was largely the domain of the local boys with Jani Paasonen and Juoko Puhakka comfortably leading Championship contenders Manfred Stohl and Gustavo Trelles while Frederic Dor leads the Teams Cup.

Special Stage winners - Neste Rally Finland - Day One.

SS1 Kuohu 7.67km Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206.
SS2 Parkkola 20.11km Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206.
SS3 Mokkipera 13.39km Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206.
SS4 Muittari 13.51km Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206.
SS5 Konttimaki 13.08km Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206.
SS6 Palsankyla 13.90km Richard Burns Subaru Impreza.
SS7 Valkola 8.40km Richard Burns Subaru Impreza.
SS8 Lankamaa 23.44km Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206.
SS9 Laukaa 12.37km Richard Burns Subaru Impreza.
SS10 Killeri 2.23km Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer.