Drivers and organisers have had to battle against the weather on today's first full leg of the third round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the TAP Rally of Portugal.

Several weeks of rain had left stages in extremely muddy condition and event chiefs were forced to cancel two repeat runnings of tests in the afternoon. Running order played a crucial part in the performances of the sport's top stars, and the first three cars on the road - Tommi M?kinen, Harri Rovanper? and Carlos Sainz - held those positions as today's action drew to a close.

The Mitsubishis / Lancer Evolutions of Tommi M?kinen and Freddy Loix have enjoyed a troublefree day, with neither driver reporting any significant mechanical problem.

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Four-times world champion Tommi M?kinen grabbed the lead of the event in today's third stage, even though he'd knocked his car's steering slightly out of line on a rock. The Finn admits that he's benefiting from his position of first car on the road. Team-mate Freddy Loix has run strongly and the Belgian spent much of the day in points-scoring positions.

Tommi Makinen said: ''We hit the right-front corner off a rock in SS4, got a puncture and bent the steering. Because it was so cold, the mousse system didn't work as well as it usually does so we had quite bad understeer. I was very surprised to be so far ahead of Harri (Rovanper?) and Carlos (Sainz) in that stage, although I can see that being first on the road has given me an advantage.''

Freddy Loix said: ''It's been a difficult day. I've been trying to follow the first few guys' wheeltracks, but if you do that, you end up sliding very wide at the exit of the corners.''

The Peugeots of Marcus Gr?nholm and Harri Rovanper? have proven reliable today, although Rovanper? experimented with ride height in an attempt to master the rough conditions. Team-mate Didier Auriol, however, lost time when he damaged a toe link in a pothole. The resulting suspension damage severed a water pipe, and Auriol and navigator Denis Giraudet lost 2m 10s of road penalties as they fixed the problem on a road section.

Harri Rovanper?'s Swedish Rally win has helped the Finn today, because it guaranteed him a position near the front of the running order. He led briefly this morning before a cautious approach to the day's longest stage, SS4, dropped him behind Tommi M?kinen. He still third as crews went to this evening's Lousada superspecial. Marcus Gr?nholm has suffered from a lower starting position, but the World champion should benefit from a better slot tomorrow after he pinned down a top-four placing early in the day. Didier Auriol lost time with suspension and water pipe damage and faces an uphill battle to regain positions tomorrow.

Marcus Gronholm said: ''I can't go any quicker than this. It's certainly a big advantage to be running nearer the front of the field. If you look at the times I'm setting, plus Colin (McRae) and Richard (Burns), then that proves it. At least it looks like I'll be further up the starting order tomorrow but by then, Tommi's going to be too far ahead.''

Harri Rovanpera added: ''Our mud tyres work about 50 percent of the time but when they don't, the car is nervous. In the slow corners it's not too bad but once I get into third or fourth gear then it's difficult to push hard. Of course I'm happy to be involved in another fight for the lead but the conditions are so bad that I'm not even thinking about a victory.''

The three works Ford Focus WRC01s of Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Francois Delecour have performed without major problems today, although the latter driver did complain of harsh brakes during the morning's stages.

Carlos Sainz has made good use of running third on the road to stay in touch with the leaders today, but Colin McRae has been hampered by a lower starting position and the Scot has had to dig deep to keep even a points placing in sight. He finally retired in SS8 for engine problems. Fran?ois Delecour struggled to find a good feeling in his Focus's brakes this morning but he recovered to hold a top-ten placing.

Carlos Sainz noted: ''These are easily the most difficult conditions I've ever seen in Portugal, in fact they're among the hardest I've ever seen. It's been a battle just to keep the car on the road, without even thinking of pushing for a time. Organisers were right to cancel the stages, because there's a safety issue. If you work out that the ambulance cannot get through the stage then it's not safe to run at all.''

Colin McRae who has retired said: ''It's not really been a competition because of the difference between the first few crews and those running further back. The car's like a sledge when it hits the muck - I'd say you're only 80 percent in control of it half the time.''

The Subaru Impreza WRC2001s of Richard Burns and Markko Martin have been well-behaved mechanically. But the team's fourth car, driven by Japanese star Toshihiro Arai, was forced into retirement when an alternator belt failed and the battery went flat whilst Petter Solberg retired after the finish of SS8 with a broken suspension.

Richard Burns has fought hard to improve his position, in the hope of securing a better road order placing for tomorrow's stages. The Englishman had hauled himself into a points position by early afternoon. The team's two young stars, Petter Solberg and Markko Martin, have found the conditions particularly difficult. Solberg spun, stalled and broke a wheel rim in SS4 and finally retired after SS8.
The fourth works car of Toshihiro Arai retired with a flat battery this morning.

Richard Burns told the media: ''When we get a level playing field - like we did in the second run over SS2 - then we can match Tommi's pace. But otherwise, we're just fighting to keep the deficit to a respectable level. In some places the ruts are so deep that we're worried about the amount of gravel being poured into the front of the engine bay.''

Petter Solberg added: ''It's hard to learn much in conditions like these but I guess it's down to experience. I've been trying to stay in the ruts of the guys in front but looking at the times, it doesn't seem to be working.''

At Hyundai Kenneth Eriksson was relieved to see SS6 and SS7 cancelled after he noticed a noise coming from his Accent WRC's propshaft after SS5. The Swede had lost no time in that stage and he was able to coast through the longer-than-planned road sections. The team effected repairs at the next service. Alister McRae felt his suspension was too hard for today's opening three tests, and the Scot was unable to detect much improvement in a softer set-up because he punctured his right-front tyre in SS5. He'd also suffered poor visibility in SS4 when a branch lodged itself under one of the Accent's windscreen wipers.

Hyundai's two drivers have found it difficult to acclimatise to the new-specification Accent in the treacherously slippery conditions. However, they both held positions on the fringes of the top ten for most of the day.

Kenneth Eriksson said: ''I had three punctures this morning but the ATS system cut in and worked well. I had to back off just a little. The roads are getting slower after every car so there's not much that we can do. It's bad enough for us - I don't want to think what it's like for guys in two-wheel drive cars!''

Alister McRae added: ''The problem is that the stages from now on favour the people running first on the road again, so we never get a chance to narrow the gap. It's just going to get bigger and bigger. The car's definitely better than before but it's hard to accurately gauge how big a step forward we've made.''

Both Skoadas retired with technical problems before completing a proper stage. Bruno Thiry's example was forced out by electrical failure on the fuel pump on the road section from Baltar superspecial to parc ferme last night. Armin Schwarz's Octavia retired with clutch failure on the way to this morning's first stage.

Neither Octavia completed a full stage, although both drivers believed that the treacherously slippery conditions could have suited the car.

Armin Schwarz said: ''It's bitterly disappointing. At the superspecial last night I thought I had a lot of wheelspin but it was actually the clutch slipping a bit. The team changed the clutch cylinder last night but as we've discovered this morning, that didn't cure the problem.''

Bruno Thiry continued: ''The car started to misfire a bit on the way back to parc ferme and then it just stopped. I'm gutted, because we set a top ten time at the superspecial and I thought the muddy conditions would have given us a chance of a good result. We just have to recover and regroup in time for Catalunya later this month.''

In the FIA Teams Cup section for privateers, Finn Pasi Hagstrom built up a comfortable advantage over Pole Janusz Kulig's Ford Focus. But the top privateer overall is young Swede Daniel Carlsson, who held 14th overall for much of the day.

Suspension damage forced out Group N leader Gabriel Pozzo and multiple category champion Gustavo Trelles, allowing reigning title-holder Manfred Stohl to lead the class.

Rally Statistics:

Starters: 94 cars (59 Group A + 35 Group N) started the rally

Retirements: Thiry (B), Schwarz (D), Arai (JPN), C.McRae (GB), Lopes (P), Bakashab (SA), Kuzai (PL), Trelles (ROU9, Pozzo (RA), Blomqvist (S) + 17 non seeded drivers


Saturday 10 March
Leg 2 starts from Santa Maria da Feira, Europarque, at 06h30 and covers 707.51km including 177.36 on 9 special stages. The first car is expected in Santa Maria da Feira, Europarque, at 21h00.

Weather forecast: Rain becoming less frequent, but still a threat of showers

Summary of todays Stages:

SS2 Vizo 1 (11.84km):
1 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 7m 57.6
2 Sainz (E) Ford 7m 58.1
3 Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 8m 05.5

Leaders after SS2:
1 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 11m 48.6
2 Sainz (E) Ford 11m 51.0
3 Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 11m 52.4

SS3 Fafe 1 (15.16km):
1 M?kinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 10m 51.8
2 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 10m 53.7
3 Sainz (E) Ford 10m 59.2

Leaders after SS3:
1 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 22m 42.3
2 M?kinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 22m 44.2
3 Thiry (B) Skoda 22m 50.2

SS4 Vieira 1 (26.68km):
1 M?kinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 20m 36.2
2 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 21m 01.7
3 Sainz (E) Ford 21m 15.2

Leaders after SS4:
1 M?kinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 43m 20.4
2 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 43m 44.0
3 Sainz (E) Ford 44m 05.4

SS5 Vizo 2 (11.84km):
1 Sainz (E) Ford 8m 17.0
2 Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 8m 21.2
3 Burns (GB) Subaru 8m 21.7

Leaders after SS5:
1 M?kinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 51m 44.1
2 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 52m 06.4
3 Sainz (E) Ford 52m 22.4

SS6 Fafe 2 (15.16km):
Stage cancelled due to adverse road conditions

SS7 Vieira 2 (26.68km):
Stage cancelled due to adverse road conditions

SS8 Amarante (18.44km):
1 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 14m 19.9
2 Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 14m 26.6
3 Sainz (E) Ford 14m 28.4

Leaders after SS8:
1 Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 1h 06m 21.2
2 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +05.1
3 Sainz (E) Ford +29,6

SS9 Mondim de Basto (22.08km):
1 Sainz (E) Ford 17m 41.9
2 Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 17m 48.3
3 Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 14m 56.2

Leaders after SS9:
1 Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 1h 24m 09.5
2 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +20.8
3 Sainz (E) Ford +23,2

SS10 Lousada (3.80km):
1 Sainz (E) Ford 17m 41.9
2 Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 17m 48.3
3 Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 14m 56.2

Leaders after SS10:
1 Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 1h 27m 34.8
2 Sainz (E) Ford +17.4
3 Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +26,3
4 Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot +1m 18.8
5 Burns (GB) Subaru +2m 12.5
6 Loix (B) Mitsubishi +3m 06,4
7 Delecour (F) Ford +3m 29.9
8 Martin (EE) Subaru +4m 40.9
9 Eriksson (S) Hyundai +5m 14,1
10 A.McRae (GB) Hyundai +5m 53.0