Marcus Gronholm successfully played sweeper in the opening stages of Rally Australia's first leg, before deciding that, to win the event he needed to slow down, on a day when deliberate 'go-slow' tactics were the main issue.

Gronholm had set the pace in yesterday's SS1, held at Langley Park the previous evening, putting him in the unenvied position of first on the road for today's nine special stages, held on the gravel covered Perth roads.

Initially, it had appeared that the world championship leader could make the difference up on speed alone, as he set the quickest time on SS2 and then finished consistently within the top five on the subsequent stages, giving him a 5.2sec overall lead after SS8.

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He would later comment, "I was actually surprised to be so fast, because from the inside of the car it really felt like we were spinning the wheels all of the time and sliding a lot. But the times have been quite good."

The next stage (SS9), however, saw many of the top runners tumble down the order as tactics were brought into play, in an apparent attempt to avoid being first for tomorrow's second leg. It was not just a case of a few 'tenths' here and there either, as Delecour, Makinen, Gronholm and Sainz all lost over three minutes on stage nine alone.

Sainz, who would end the leg eighth overall after spending much of the day in third, was unhappy at having to adopt such tactics. "It's strange that on a world championship rally we find ourselves in the position of deliberately losing time to gain a better running position tomorrow."

The thirty-eight year old emphasised, "The fastest drivers are being penalised. Last year on this rally the quickest drivers were able to choose their re-start positions for the following day. It worked well then but the idea is not being used this year."

Makinen had the advantage of knowing his main rival's stage times before he had started, however a timing mix-up left him unhappy at being five seconds quicker than he had planned!

After finishing the day in third he explained what had happened, "We were trying to be further down the leaderboard, but there was a difference in the timing between us and the organisers. They gave us a time which was five seconds better than what we had on Risto's watch, and that's turned out to be the difference between third and sixth position."

The tactics situation contributed towards a well deserved stage win for Hyundai's Kenneth Eriksson, who had been regularly (if inconsistently) pushing his way into the top five stage times, while teammate Alister McRae also turned in some very quick times.

Eriksson's day had started well when he set the second fastest time on SS2. However, this was followed by a hole in the engine sump after the Swede landed heavily on a buried rock after a jump. The resulting loss in oil pressure forced Eriksson to slow, incurring road penalties while the hole was patched up.

Luckily the damage was repaired by the team mechanics in the service area, allowing Eriksson to continue. He said, "The car feels fantastic, the traction is excellent but if we had more power, we would have been leading the rally after that first stage this morning

"The car is very good on the slower, twistier stages but we lose out a little on the faster ones. It was also a little worrying when we lost the engine oil this morning but the engine did not seem to suffer any damage - if it survives that, then hopefully, it can survive anything," said the forty-four year old.

Teammate Alister McRae suffered a half spin on the first stage of the day, losing a minute and a half after the engine stalled and refused to re-start, dropping his overall position to 27th. However, he successfully fought back to eleventh overall - setting a series of top ten stage times, including a third fastest on stage three, in the process.

"As before, on gravel, the car feels great, the handling and balance are fantastic," McRae remarked. "It's obviously frustrating to lose that amount of time but the encouraging thing was that my time at the split was the same as Kenneth's, so potentially we would have been on for a good time. But our road position means we can push for improved places tomorrow."

206 WRC driver Francois Delecour suffered mechanical gremlins, but nevertheless ran competitively all day, "The gear change is not such a big problem - it's just changing not quite at the right point sometimes, but in any case, I haven't been trying so hard. I can't understand how Marcus is able to go so quickly when he's running first on the road, though - he's been doing some fantastic times. It will be difficult to be this far up the running order tomorrow."

The main news of the leg was the retirement of World Championship contender Colin McRae after SS6 when he stopped on a road section after experiencing a loss of oil pressure.

Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson suggested a damaged piston caused the problem, ''It's disappointing to lose Colin so early. He was driving exactly to plan and things were looking good." The retirement almost certainly ruined McRae's chances of a second World Championship.

Subaru's new signing, Petter Solberg, also made an early exit from the Rally, literally in his case, when he left the road on SS8, forcing his retirement. It was unfortunate end for the Dutch driver, who had recorded two fastest stage times beforehand and been running in the top five for most of the day.

"I am very disappointed naturally because we were going extremely well and setting some very competitive times, including two scratch times. We tried to get the car back onto the stage, but it was grounded on an earth bank and it was impossible to move," Solberg said.

The final stage of the day (SS10) saw a return to racing speed by most of the competitors, although Burns and Gronholm bravely(?) held back to finish nearly 1min 40secs off stage winner Makinen's time.

So the first leg of Rally Australia ended with Kankkunen leading overall from Delecour and Makinen, with last years winner Richard Burns fourth, the Englishman having driven consistently quick, but without ever winning a stage. Early leader Gronholm holds fifth position overnight, passing the job of road sweeper to fellow Finn Kankkunen.

Burns was unimpressed by the situation, "I believe the outcome of the world championship should be determined on the stages, but unfortunately my hand is now forced."

He continued, "I will be obliged, against my principles, to use the same tactics as the other teams tomorrow if we are to win here. But apart from a lack of feeling from the brakes today, we've had a good day and I'm confident that we are well set to win."

The vastly experience Kankkunen was unfazed at going against the grain of popular opinion, saying, "We have driven hard today, without taking any risks. I think tactics are not important yet, we'll worry about that tomorrow, because what matters is road position on the final day. We had two minor punctures, but nothing that cost us any time, so it's been a good day."

Gronholm, meanwhile, is cautiously optimistic of having an easier second leg, "I'm pleased to be running with a few cars in front of me tomorrow. One of my championship rivals (Colin McRae) has retired but the competition is still looking tough."

Uruguay's Gustavo Trelles(Lancer Evolution) steadily built up a slender lead in Group N, "Everything has been very good and we have had no problems with the car at all, but we have to keep going like this, because if I don't win here, probably Manfred (Stohl) will win the World Championship," Trelles warned.

Stohl himself lost a few seconds with a puncture on the ninth stage, but he remains in a good position to continue his season-long duel with Trelles. "It would be good to be leading of course, but we are in quite a nice position and I think we can attack Gustavo a bit more tomorrow," he commented.

Tomorrow's second leg consists of a long journey south to Harvey, around which all but one of the day's seven stages are based, and will include the 45.42km Wellington Dam special stage, the longest of the rally, before ending with a final run around Perth's riverside Langley Park.