The world's top rally stars have thrilled huge crowds on the opening day of the Rallye Catalunya - Costa Brava. Citroen celebrated its arrival in the series by leading from the opening stage, thanks to the efforts of Spanish champion Jesus Puras.

Team-mate Philippe Bugalski then boosted the French manufacturer's joy further by moving into second by the end of the day.

However, the event has not been without controversy for the French marque with Puras having been under intense scrutiny yesterday following claims of irregular practice and pace notes. Late last night, however, the stewards cleared the Spaniard to start.

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Behind the Citroens, the Peugeots of Gilles Panizzi and Didier Auriol, and Mitsubishi's Tommi M?kinen, are all poised to challenge the Xsara WRC's tomorrow.

Citroen:

Jesus Puras grabbed the lead on this morning's opening stage and extended his advantage as the day progressed.

''I'm a bit surprised to be leading, because there's a lot of loose gravel getting pulled out into the road in the corners and I've been taking risks," explained Puras. "But I know if we're to have any chance we need to be further up the running order tomorrow so I've been pushing accordingly. It's a great day for Citroen.''

Team-mate Philippe Bugalski struggled initially with his car's brakes after suffering a broken disc on the road section to the first service this morning. Although the team replaced the offending item, it took a couple of stages for the Frenchman to gain more confidence in the car's braking.

Bugalski went on to set a fastest time in SS3 and then continued at that pace this afternoon, moving him into second overall.

''The first couple of stages were hard but it's got better ever since," said Bugalski. "I've got a good feeling with the car now, and now that we've moved up the running order we have a chance.''

Peugeot:

Marcus Gr?nholm made good use of clean roads and increasing confidence on asphalt to hold a top three position for most of this morning. But on the repeated long stage this afternoon, he ripped the left-rear wheel from his car on a concrete post and was forced to retire for the third time in four outings.

"We got caught out on a slow corner," admitted Gronholm. "It was maybe only second gear, but we couldn't stay on the good surface. We slid wide, hit the gravel and then went further. The rear of the car hit a concrete post and that was it. I'm disappointed, obviously, because it was going well up to that point.''

His team-mates have had to dig deep to beat crews running further up the order and improve their chances of clean roads tomorrow. Didier Auriol helped his cause with second and fourth fastest times this morning, but was unhappy with his starting position: ''It's hard to make an impression on the leaders and improve my road position when I'm running this far back. The leading crews are cutting corners a lot and pulling gravel into the road. But I had to try. I'm pleased. ''

Panizzi, who complained that the rear end of his 206 was nervous, particularly under braking, nevertheless moved into a points placing with third fastest time in the third stage.

The remaining pair of Peugeot's then inched ahead of M?kinen this afternoon to hold third and fourth overnight.
Mitsubishi:

After the opening leg of Spanish competition, the Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart crew of Tommi Makinen and Risto Mannisenmaki hold fifth position in the Rallye Catalunya/Costa Brava. Team-mates Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets are a fine sixth in one of their favourite events of the 14-round FIA World Rally Championship.

Tommi Makinen, who won his first asphalt event here in Spain in 1997, has demonstrated that the revised Lancer Evolution is a potent force on asphalt as well as snow, ice and gravel.

The Finn was fastest on stage two to climb into second, and maintained his position until a brake cooling problem dropped him back to fifth this afternoon. He and Risto Mannisenmaki have nevertheless consistently been in the fight with the mighty Peugeots and Citroens that have a legendary reputation on asphalt, and which hold the top four positions after 101 competitive kilometres.

''On the last group of stages this afternoon we had a minor brake problem,'' commented the Finn. ''We don't know exactly what caused it, but they were overheating towards the end of the stages; maybe it was something to do with the cooling system. We also had a small problem with the gearbox on stage four, but the team will change that at the service tonight. Generally things are ok, and we will look for a positive start tomorrow because everything is still very open.''

Team-mates Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets have been in fine form and hold sixth position in their Carisma GT. Amid such heated competition, the Belgians have held their own and, but for a half spin on the final stage, would have been some ten seconds closer to the lead.

''We made a small mistake on the last stage with a spin six kilometres before the end, but the rest is going quite well,'' said Freddy. ''We try to be a little bit quicker tomorrow, but I don't know if we can. The competition is very fierce.''
Ford:

Ford Martini drivers Fran?ois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup ended the day in eighth in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car, one place ahead of team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya.

Colin McRae and Nicky Grist retired the third Focus RS before the start of the final special stage with a fuel pressure problem.

It was a difficulty experienced on all three Focus cars during the day and team director Malcolm Wilson believes all may have suffered a contamination problem in the fuel tank.

''All the drivers have experienced low fuel pressure and had to switch from the main fuel pump to the reserve to keep going. The fuel system is no different to that used on other rallies this season and Fran?ois car completed 400km in testing just before the recce with no signs of difficulty,'' he said.

''I think there may be a contamination problem in the fuel tank and we've changed the entire fuel system at service tonight on Carlos' and Fran?ois' cars. We'll examine Colin's car this evening and hopefully that will tell us what the problem is,'' added Wilson.

The pace was fierce from the start on the first all-asphalt rally of the year and for the Ford Martini team today represented the first competitive opportunity to learn about Pirelli's tyres in such conditions.

All three drivers felt softer compound rubber would have been a better option as temperatures rose during the morning stages but in the afternoon only Delecour followed that route. Sainz and McRae chose the same compound but with a stiffer construction tyre to try to improve handling.

Delecour remained eighth for virtually all the leg. ''The engine has been misfiring most of the afternoon and we had to push the car to the control at service this evening. We were very lucky and we were almost in the same situation as Colin,'' he said.

Sainz was roared on by thousands of fellow Spaniards lining the roads, but his fuel pressure problems hindered progress. ''We switched to the reserve fuel pump but it didn't make any real difference as the car still misfired. It's been a difficult day because the roads were quite dirty in places during the second run through the stages this afternoon so we can only hope things are better tomorrow,'' he said.

McRae started slowly, losing a handful of seconds after stalling his engine at the start of the opening stage. However, he had climbed to seventh when the engine of his Focus stopped just before the start of the 15.80km Vallfogona test, the last of the day. It would not re-start and he was forced to retire.

''I don't know what caused the problem but it started on the road section before the final stage,'' said 32-year-old McRae. ''The car wouldn't run properly and it was pointless trying to start the stage. We're just having a really bad run at the moment and things seem to be going against us at every turn. It'll get better soon.''

Subaru:

Richard Burns held a top-six placing after the first stage but dropped out of contention when he hit gearbox problems on the very next test. ''The gearbox started to select neutral of its own accord," explained Burns. "At the end of SS2 and SS3 I had to lock the gearbox in fifth to keep going, and I spun at one hairpin when I arrived in fifth gear.''

The troublesome unit was changed at lunchtime service as a result, but a broken wheel cost the Englishman even more time this afternoon.

"We've only had two and half clean stages out of six today, and to win here you need 100% perfect stages," said Burns at the end of Leg One. "We're a long way behind now, but my objective must be to score a point, which will need a hell of an effort, but that's what I am going to aim for tomorrow

Team-mate Petter Solberg fared worse - the young Norwegian set respectable times in SS1 and SS2, but then slid off the road, into a ditch and into retirement.

"I saw lines on the road where the cars in front of me had cut the corner quite aggressively," revealed Solberg. "I wanted to play it safe, so I took a more conservative line, but the back of the car hit some loose gravel and we went into a spin and slid into the ditch, and there was no way out."

Markko Martin also hit problems, feeling his car's handling was unpredictable on the first stage, and then losing more time with ignition cut-off problems in SS2. Nevertheless he stayed in touch with the top ten and finished the leg as the top Subaru runner.

"Today wouldn't have been such a problem if we didn't have to keep taking stop and go penalties!" Joked Martin. "It's a shame we have had ignition problems, because after the first stage, we sorted the handling and the car has felt superb. I just hope the engineers cure the problem and we have a better day tomorrow."

Skoda:

The two Skoda Octavia WRC's enjoyed trouble-free progress and were placed just outside the top ten after 101km of thrilling action. With the leaders averaging more than 100km/h on the twisty mountain roads, Thiry ended today's leg in 11th place overall in his Octavia and in eighth place among the 14 registered official factory entries.

Schwarz was hot on the Belgian's heels occupying 12th position on the overnight leader-board and ninth in the hunt for manufacturer points.

"Everything is going well," reported 38-year-old Thiry, renowned as one of the world's top asphalt experts. "The Octavia's chassis set-up is just the way I like it and that has given me much more confidence in the handling than I had in Monte Carlo. Tomorrow will be a much harder day but the Skoda is a tough car so I'm sure that will not be a problem."

Schwarz was equally pleased with his first day's progress. "We have adopted a sensible pace," said the 37-year-old German. "We know that we need a little more engine power to run at the front in this top class company but the chassis balance is really good which is encouraging."

Hyundai:

Hyundai's biggest problem today seemed to be the long uphill sections on some stages, where the Accents of both Alister McRae and Piero Liatti lost time to their rivals.

The set-up of Hyundai's 'interim' asphalt-specification Accent WRC2 has been tweaked throughout the day after the team started without an extensive test session. Alister McRae's example suffered from understeer, while Piero Liatti felt his car was down on turbo boost this morning. The turbo was changed at first service as a result.

''I've got a bit of understeer in long corners but I think the biggest problem is sheer power," confirmed McRae. "We lose time uphill and then match the rest on the downhill bits, so at least we know what we have to do.''

Accordingly, both cars were outside of the top ten but both drivers were keen to experiment with settings on the still-new evolution version of the car.

FIA Super 1600 Cup:

In the FIA Super 1600 Cup, Frenchman Sebastian Loeb has grabbed the initial advantage in hisCitroen Saxo. He leads Giandomenico Basso's Fiat Punto by more than half a minute, with reigning Group N world champion (and recent convert to the new category) Manfred Stohl third, a further six seconds behind.

Fran?ois Duval (B) had made a superb start in his Ford Puma, setting one fastest time and three second quickest times in the opening five stages, enabling the young Belgian to lead the category.

However, he dropped more than four minutes after stopping to change a puncture on the final stage to slip to 15th.

The second leg, in the Tarragona region south of Barcelona, is the most demanding of all, covering almost 900km. After starting at 05.45, drivers face two groups of three stages, totalling 163.78km, before returning to Lloret de Mar at 21.48. The stages are longer, four tests exceeding 31km,and the asphalt more abrasive than that of today.