As expected, Peugeot led the way on the opening day of the Tour de Corse, but it wasn't championship leader Marcus Gronholm to the fore.

Instead, as the tarmac novice Finn struggled to find his feet on the Mediterranean island, expert team-mates Francois Delecour and Gilles Panizzi set the pace. Recalled for his ability to add to the team's manufacturers' points total, Panizzi emerged as the surprise overnight leader, having won four of the six stages.

First blood was spilt by the Subaru of Richard Burns, but it quickly became apparent that this was an anomaly, as the erstwhile series leader found himself scrapping for crumbs around the base of the top six, and rarely threatened the dominant 206s thereafter. Burns attributed his seeming lack of pace to just trying to take it easy on the first day of three, planning to make his move as others faltered on the treacherous mountain roads.

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''''I'm very disappointed with this first day and I really don't know what to say, but the important thing is not to make any mistakes,'' he stressed, ''Pushing unnecessarily hard won't give me any advantage tonight.''

Fifth going into the second day, Burns trails the strong Peugeot pair and both Fords as well, following a strong showing from Cyprus winner Carlos Sainz, and a couple of top three finishes from team-mate Colin McRae. The Spaniard put his performance down to the confidence boost he received by destroying the field in the last round, and will look to improve his lot by pressuring the two men ahead of him from the off on Saturday.

McRae, meanwhile, was left to rue an error in tyre choice which, despite giving him third spot after the opening test, proved to be too soft to cope over the relatively long stages thereafter.

''The tyres were moving around too much when I pushed hard,'' the Scot explained, ''This is typical asphalt rallying - we're all very close and so the only way anyone gets a big advantage is if someone else makes a mistake.''

While the championship contenders endured their mixed fortunes, Panizzi and Delecour were quick to capitalise. Delecour took an early lead after following Burns home on the opening stage, winning the third, and only being out of the top three times on the final test of the day. His consistency was not to be rewarded, however, as Panizzi got into his stride, and made subtle gains over his fellow Frenchman later in the day.

''It's not easy to come back after six months and go quickly immediately,'' he said of his slow start, before issuing a chilling warning to his rivals, ''However I hope that I can get back to being fully competitive over the next two days.''

Delecour, meanwhile, held onto a strong second spot, fending off the late challenge from Sainz and doing his best to prevent the non-Peugeot drivers from making serious inroads into team-mate Gronholm's points advantage, despite the attentions of the local wildlife.

''I had to slow because there were wild pigs on the road,'' he smiled after SS5, ''We're all going to flat out, though, and I don't think anyone can go any quicker."
Gronholm struggled to come to terms with a surface almost new to him, and then suffered problems with his brakes, which persistently overheated under the strain of the twisty roads, and left him a non-scoring eighth for much of the day.

''I've got no confidence in them,'' he said of his retardation, ''I've had to switch to right-foot braking, and I'm not used to it.''

One of the men expected to go well on the asphalt, given his experience and improved showing in Cyprus, crashed out as early as SS1. Freddy Loix admitted that his demise was all his own fault, and was left ruing almost three days watching from the sidelines after crashing off the side of the road.

''I made a big stupid mistake,'' he said sorrowfully, ''I went too quickly at the start when the tyres were cold, had no grip at all at the first left-hand corner and went off.''

Team-mate Tommi Makinen fared better, popping up in the top three on a couple of stages, but being restricted to sixth overall by a slightly conservative tyre choice.

Nevertheless, the reigning champion remains ahead of the second Subaru, and third Ford, piloted by Simon Jean-Joseph and Piero Liatti respectively. Drafted in, like Panizzi, because of their tarmac backgrounds, neither disgraced themselves in unfamiliar machinery, but neither threatened the top six either. Indeed, both fared better than the third, semi-works, Subaru entry of Ford defector Petter Solberg, who retired after going OTL approaching SS2.

''I feel that this first leg has been positive,'' Liatti allowed, ''I'm learning this car and I'm beginning to find out how to make it better."
Six time Tour winner Didier Auriol managed to negotiate the opening day with few problems, but felt that his underpowered SEAT was no match for those ahead of him. Team-mate Toni Gardemeister also managed to stay away from the scenery long enough to mount an attack on the top ten, but will have to be equally vigilant tomorrow if he is to finally break in. Both cars suffered mild gearbox problems, which persisted throughout the day, despite the team's best efforts to effect a cure.

At least both Cordobas made it to the end of the day, which could not be said of the Hyundais. Desperately in need of valuable asphalt running, the MSD-run operation suffered an early blow when team leader Kenneth Eriksson succumbed to a clutch problem caused when he ran off the road, and lost ten minutes, on SS2.

Championship leader Manfred Stohl did exactly that with the GpN lead, heading local expert Jean-Marie Santoni and series rivals Gianluigi Galli and Gustavo Trelles in another Mitsubishi domination.

The second leg begins early tomorrow morning, and takes the remaining crews over a 510km loop incorporating six new stages.

Stage winners - leg one.

SS1 Vero (18.22km) Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 12mins 49.6secs
SS2 Lopigna (29.96km) Gilles Panizzi Peugeot 206 WRC 19mins 48.9secs
SS3 Bellevalle (20.84km) Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC 12mins 16.5secs
SS4 Filitosa (22.47km) Gilles Panizzi Peugeot 206 WRC 14mins 07.1secs
SS5 Cuttoli (17.34km) Gilles Panizzi Peugeot 206 WRC 11mins 30.1secs
SS6 Gare de Carbuccia (20.04km) Gilles Panizzi Peugeot 206 WRC 11mins 51.8secs

Overall times after SS6

1. Gilles Panizzi Peugeot 206 WRC 01hrs 22mins 30.2secs +00mins 00.0secs
2. Francois Delecour Peugeot 206 WRC 01hrs 22mins 36.2secs +00mins 06.0secs
3. Carlos Sainz Ford Focus WRC 01hrs 22mins 46.6secs +00mins 16.4secs
4. Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC 01hrs 22mins 51.1secs +00mins 20.9secs
5. Richard Burns Subaru Impreza WRC2000 01hrs 22mins 54.7secs +00mins 24.5secs
6. Tommi Makinen Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6 01hrs 22mins 56.3secs +00mins 26.1secs
7 Simon Jean-Joseph Subaru Impreza WRC 01hrs 23mins 31.3secs +01mins 01.1secs
8. Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC 01hrs 23mins 42.4secs +01mins 12.2secs
9. Didier Auriol SEAT Cordoba WRC 01hrs 24mins 01.4secs +01mins 31.2secs
10. Piero Liatti Ford Focus WRC 01hrs 24mins 05.9secs +01mins 35.7secs

11. Toni Gardemeister SEAT Cordoba WRC 01hrs 25mins 14.0secs +02mins 43.8secs
16. Alister McRae Hyundai Accent WRC 01hrs 25mins 58.1secs +03mins 27.9secs

Group N

Manfred Stohl Mitsubishi Carisma GT 01hrs 29mins 59.6secs +07mins 29.4secs
Jean-Marie Santoni Mitsubishi Carisma GT 01hrs 30mins 06.9secs +07mins 36.7secs
Gianluigi Galli Mitsubishi Carisma GT 01hrs 30mins 20.3secs +07mins 50.7secs
Gustavo Trelles Mitsubishi Lancer 01hrs 30mins 40.0secs +08mins 07.7secs
Gabriel Mendez Mitsubishi Lancer 01hrs 31mins 47.4secs +08mins 08.1secs

Retirements

Rtd Kenneth Eriksson Hyundai Accent WRC clutch - SS2
Rtd Petter Solberg Subaru Impreza WRC2000 Gearbox/OTL - SS2
Rtd Freddy Loix Mitsubishi Carisma GT accident - SS1

[Times courtesy Mitsubishi Motors]