Carlos Sainz didn't put a foot wrong in the opening six stages of Rally Sweden, giving the Spaniard the overnight lead by over 13secs.

Drivers were treated to near-perfect winter rally conditions on the opening day's action of the International Swedish Rally, the second round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Snowfalls yesterday created high banks along the side of the stages, allowing the sport's top stars to use every inch of the road - and more besides - as they fought for seconds.

Ford's Carlos Sainz started the day cautiously but after gaining confidence in the best conditions seen on the rally for many years, he soon eased into the consistent style which is his trademark. On the day's final four stages the 38-year-old Madrid-based pilot was never outside the top three times, moving his Focus RS into the lead on the penultimate test.

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''I've never known the Swedish Rally to be so nice,'' said Sainz. ''It's been enjoyable to drive in these conditions and we've had a good day. It's not been easy running second on the road because there was a little loose snow which we were clearing away for the benefit of those behind. It's good to be first but perhaps not so good to be first on the road tomorrow although so long as it doesn't snow again tonight, conditions should be OK. The car has run well and I have a good feeling with it.''

McRae and Grist started strongly and were second after the first two stages.
However, the British pair clipped a snowbank in the following test and spent an agonising 5min 30sec trying to manhandle their Focus RS out of the by now soft snow. Undaunted, they went on to set fastest time on each of the last three stages, at astonishingly high average speeds of 118kph, 116kph and 118kph respectively. They returned to the rally base in Karlstad 20th, 4min 37.8sec behind Sainz.

''We ran wide on a bend and just clipped the bank,'' said 32-year-old McRae. ''Because other cars had already hit it, the snow was quite loose and the car simply became stuck. Spectators helped push us out but it was very frustrating, especially as our times later show just what the Focus RS is capable of achieving. We've been pushing hard this afternoon and tomorrow I'll be quite happy to continue setting fastest times but I must stay out of the snowbanks,'' he added ruefully.

Fran?ois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup, driving the third official Focus RS, are seventh after overcoming several minor difficulties. A misted windscreen on the first stage meant Delecour had to peer through a tiny gap to see the road ahead while a rock lying in the middle of the track punctured a tyre and damaged his car's suspension on the same test. A bad tyre choice also frustrated the French pair on the daunting 49.36km Granberget test.

''The car has been perfect. Apart from our bad tyre selection, nothing has really gone wrong but I don't feel I've driven well,'' said 38-year-old Delecour. ''There's nothing I can really identify, I just haven't been fast enough. Tomorrow I'll do better!''

Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson felt confident enough to ease Sainz's fears about the conditions tomorrow. ''It's forecast to be very cold tonight so there shouldn't be any more snow and I don't think it will be a big disadvantage to be first on the road in the morning. Carlos has driven both carefully and well. He's finished second here four times so hopefully this is the year he can go one better,'' he said.

Peugeot started the day promisingly when Marcus Gronholm grabbed the lead on the first stage - only to have to retire when his engine's temperature went off the scale in SS2. The team later attributed the failure to a cylinder head gasket problem.

''It looked like the same problem we had in Monte Carlo but the team say it isn't," remarked a downbeat Gronholm. "It's not a good start to the season for us - two starts and no points - and I'm sure we could have scored a good result here.''

Meanwhile Didier Auriol's 206 suffered no major problems, and was feeling slightly better after he spent much of yesterday in bed with bronchitis. He did enough to force his way into the top six after the day's longest stage.

''Sometimes my reactions are slow so I'm not pushing at maximum," admitted Auriol. "But the times aren't bad so perhaps we can get some points.''

Harri Rovanpera completed the opening three stages with brake glitches but was nevertheless the lead Peugeot for most of the day, finishing the first leg in second overall - 13.2secs off Sainz.

''I'm not taking any risks, not doing anything stupid. The car feels fantastic and I'm learning more about it all the time,'' said the Finn.

Mitsubishi's Tommi Makinen's progress has been hampered by his position of first car on the road: He encountered a layer of fine, powdery snow in SS1 and SS3, and spectators in the road in the latter test as well. ''The spectators just couldn't hear us because of the high snow banks. I had to brake quite hard.''

The Four-times world champion encountered few mechanical problems apart from overheating tyres in the day's longest stage, the 49km of SS4. He holds fifth position heading into tomorrow's leg two.

Freddy Loix struggled to build his confidence thanks to a major spin in SS1, he also slid off the road for three minutes on SS4 and notched up road penalties in service after SS3, when the Mitsubishi mechanics had to fix a broken turbo.

The third Lancer, driven by Swede Thomas Radstrom, has by contrast run without major problems - either mechanical or driver related. Radstrom featured strongly throughout all today's stages, and despite thinking he had a puncture after a heavy landing in SS4, the Swede ended the leg an impressive third overall having lead the event earlier in the day.

''I could probably push a bit harder in places but you have to approach corners differently with this car than I'm used to," said Radstrom. "I'm learning all the time, and I think I can go quicker still tomorrow.''

Hyundai's Kenneth Eriksson was determined to score a good result on home soil and the Swede has held a top-ten placing throughout the opening day, despite being held up by Colin McRae's snow dust after the Ford driver rejoined the route after an accident, he holds sixth going into tomorrow's second leg.

''The car's been working really well and perhaps it's better to run a bit further back, but when people hit the snow banks they knock fresh snow into our path as well. It's good to be able to fight for points placings,'' said Eriksson.

Alister McRae suffered a cracked turbo pipe in the longest stage of the day (SS4) resulting in lost boost and the Scot dropping more than a minute and a half to his team-mate. He holds thirteenth place overnight.

Richard Burns's hopes of getting even a point from rally Sweden disappeared on SS2, when the Englishman slid his Subaru Impreza onto the top of a snowbank and lost more than 12 minutes.

''I braked too late at the end of a sixth-gear section and I knew the car wouldn't make it round the corner," explained Burns. "I got turned in, but then it went straight through the snow bank on the outside. We'll continue - I can play with the car a bit, and there are some new stages to see.''

Meanwhile Markko Martin held a promising fourth place until he suffered a puncture in SS4 - and damaged the car's brakes and bodywork as a result. ''The puncture was disappointing because our times had been good up to that point," commented Martin. "I'm just glad to get some kilometres after such short rallies before now! I still don't quite trust the car - I need more experience for that.'' The Estonian currently lies in 21st place, nearly 6mins down.

Petter Solberg adopted a steady approach throughout the day to hold eighth position overnight, 1min 12.2secs off Sainz.

Skoda's Bruno Thiry set the tenth fastest time on the day's opening stage and continued to show good form throughout the opening leg; the 39-year-old Belgian revelling in the Octavia WRC's fine handling particularly on the faster sections.

"This is one of my favourite rallies and today, with newly fallen snow and blue skies, it's been beautiful. We hit something in the darkness during the last stage and suffered a puncture but the car has been running well and I'm pleased with our performance. The chassis is perfectly balanced... with a little more power, I know we would be challenging the leaders."

Schwarz, competing in his first Swedish Rally for four years, started steadily by setting the 21st fastest time on the day's first stage but quickly moved up the leaderboard as he reacquainted himself with the art of rallying at high speeds on snow and ice.

"I'm still learning the roads here in Sweden but my confidence is growing all the time. The first few stages were rather narrow and twisty - not ideal for a big car like the Octavia. However we've been picking up the pace on the faster stages and now I'm looking forward to tomorrow," said the 37-year-old German.

In terms of tyres Michelin's teams all opted for the French firm's asymmetric tyre to cope with the thin layer of powdery snow, while Pirelli's teams switched between an ice tyre and a snow tyre.

The strongest performance from a non-factory crew has been Swedish national driver Daniel Carlsson, who pushed his Toyota Corolla into the top ten. But in the FIA Teams Cup section, Pasi Hagstrom's Corolla set the pace, comfortably clear of reigning European champion Henrik Lundgaard.

Locals dominated the Group N section for more standard machinery, with Stig-Olov Walfridsson leading the category from Kenneth Backlund.