Ford's Colin McRae has dominated the opening day of the fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rally Argentina. Having set two fastest times on yesterday's evening's superspecials on the outskirts of Cordoba, the Scot topped the timesheets on today's first three stages to open up an advantage of nearly a minute.

The battles are much closer behind the 1995 world champion, with Richard Burns, Tommi M?kinen and Carlos Sainz involved in a scrap for second overall and the Peugeots of Didier Auriol and Marcus Gr?nholm recovering after slow starts. With mist and low cloud an ever-present threat, and occasional damp, muddy patches on the roads, the South American terrain has provided a stern test for the sport's top stars.

The Focus WRC01s have suffered no major mechanical problems today, although team mechanics had to repair Fran?ois Delecour's example after he rolled on the day's first stage.

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Colin McRae has been in inspired form, as the Scot followed up his two fastest times at yesterday evening's superspecial to quickly build a lead of more than half a minute. His team-mate Carlos Sainz fought off the pain of his back injury to hold a top six place for much of the day. The third Focus, driven by Fran?ois Delecour, did not fare as well - barely two kilometres into today's opening stage, the Frenchman was caught out by a deep rut in a hairpin and put the car on its roof. Spectators returned the Focus onto its wheels but Delecour lost further time when he had to cope with a broken windscreen.

Colin McRae said: ''It's been going quite well. I was actually a little surprised on today's first stage, because I thought our time would be just respectable and it was way quicker than anyone else. Our lead looks good already but this is the sort of rally where you could lose it easily by clipping a rock. We can't relax yet, although I have to admit today's gone much better than I expected.''

Carlos Sainz added: ''The fog on today's first stage was very bad and I lost a bit of time there. My back problem makes my leg sore and although the painkillers are helping, it's far from perfect. All I can do is keep fighting.''

At Subaru Richard Burns suffered power steering problems on today's third stage, and then he lost the rear brakes on his Impreza WRC2001 on the following test. He hit further power steering dramas on the day's final pair of stages. The other Impreza drivers - Petter Solberg and Toshihiro Arai - reported no significant technical problems, although Solberg felt his choice of tyres for the middle loop of stages was too soft.

Richard Burns eased ahead of his team-mate Petter Solberg this morning, despite spinning in fifth gear on today's first stage. The Briton quickly became embroiled in the frantic battle for second overall, and fastest time on today's fourth stage moved him 15 seconds clear of Tommi M?kinen in that position. Solberg, meanwhile, has been concentrating on staying relaxed and paying little attention to the timesheets as he strives to gain mileage and score a morale-boosting finish.

Richard Burns said: ''The fog was pretty bad this morning. On the first stage, there was a left-right combination of corners and I went into the 'left' too quickly. Fortunately the road was wide enough to do a complete spin because we were in fifth gear at the time.''

Petter Solberg added: ''The fog was difficult because I haven't done much rallying in such low visibility. But I'm quite relaxed with the way I'm driving. I promised myself beforehand that I wouldn't keep looking at the times and that's what I'm doing.''

Toshihiro Arai continued: ''It's interesting to follow Colin (McRae) on the road because he's taking some big risks. Four or five times today I've found big rocks in the middle of the road where he's cut a corner!''

At Mitsubishi Tommi M?kinen's Lancer Evolution has been reliable today, but Freddy Loix was forced to perform running repairs on his example after he damaged its suspension on today's first pair of stages.

Tommi M?kinen felt that running first on the road today put him at a disadvantage, although he was second quickest on this morning's opening test regardless. The Finn lost time to Colin McRae but seemed able to swap seconds with his rivals for second overall. He was unable to resist Richard Burns's mid-leg charge but M?kinen was able to battle with Carlos Sainz for third overall.

Freddy Loix, meanwhile, lost time when he hit a rock on today's first stage and bent a steering arm and the rear suspension. The Belgian was pleased with tweaks to his car's differential settings for the afternoon tests, but then he rolled on the day's penultimate stage and lost time as he waited for spectators to return the Lancer onto its wheels.

Tommi M?kinen said: ''I'm sure the road was getting better for people further down the field this morning, because for us it was quite hard-packed and even polished. We know from our test that a few cars can break up the surface just a little and you end up getting more grip. But the times still aren't bad, so we can just keep trying.''

Freddy Loix added: ''In today's first stage, I came round a long corner and there was a rock in the road. We just couldn't avoid it and it bent a steering arm and damaged the rear suspension. It took time for me to get used to it, because the car was pulling to the right. Our roll was really silly too - we came to a hairpin, pulled the handbrake and it just went over slowly.''

Meanwhile all three Peugeot 206 WRC drivers reported technical problems this morning. Didier Auriol was less than satisfied with his car's throttle response, while Marcus Gr?nholm's example broke its wastegate after 7km of the first stage, leaving the world champion down on power for much of the morning. Harri Rovanper?'s car suffered gearbox problems on downshifts, spoiling the Finn's concentration as he came into corners. He suffered steering problems on the second loop of stages as well, and then retired with suspension damage after the day's penultimate stage.

Didier Auriol openly admits that he doesn't like driving in fog but the 1994 world champion was the top Peugeot for much of this morning nevertheless. Second fastest time on the day's second stage lifted him to fifth, just ahead of team-mate Harri Rovanper?, but then the Swedish Rally winner fought back in today's middle loop of tests to lead the French manufacturer's charge in fifth. But when his car broke a bottom arm in SS7 he was forced to retire. Marcus Gr?nholm's technical problems left the Finn frustrated and out of the points this morning but once his turbo was fixed, he charged back towards the top six.

Marcus Gr?nholm said: ''The car just started to lose turbo pressure this morning. It's very frustrating, because the mist on last night's superspecial meant we'd already lost time to Colin and then he went very fast first thing today as well. We need to get our reliability right and then I'm sure we can push. It's not over yet, but Colin's too far ahead already.''

Didier Auriol added: ''This rally is much more pleasant when the conditions are nice - I don't like driving in fog and this morning was pretty bad! But we're still in contention - Colin's going very quickly, but we can fight with the rest of the guys for second at least. The car's handling isn't perfect, though - we need to experiment with some differential settings.''

At Skoda Armin Schwar'z Octavia WRC bent a right-front upright on this morning's first pair of stages, but otherwise his and Bruno Thiry's machines have proven generally reliable on their first outing in Argentina.

Armin Schwarz has found the Argentina stages difficult to master on his first visit to the South American event. The German admits that his pacenotes here need refining and he lost time when he bent his Octavia's suspension this morning. Two punctures in SS7 didn't help his cause either. Bruno Thiry has had an eventful day - the Belgian clipped a rock on today's opening stage, then spun in SS4 and suffered a heavy landing in SS6. The latter incident punctured his left-front tyre but Michelin's ATS mousse system prevented any serious time loss.

Armin Schwarz said: ''It's been difficult, but all I can do is keep enjoying myself and driving. At the high altitude here the engine feels down on power, but I guess everyone feels the same. I'm finding it hard to keep my bearings, though, because a lot of the scenery looks the same and when we did the recce, it was foggy anyway.''

Bruno Thiry added: ''We've had a few moments. When we hit the rock this morning it knocked the tracking of the right-rear wheel out of line, and the heavy landing could have been quite serious. We basically landed off the road!''

Hyundai's two Accent WRC2s started reliably but both Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson hit problems this afternoon. McRae's car started cutting out in SS5 and SS6 with a suspected master switch problem, while Eriksson's gearbox warning light flashed intermittently this morning. But in the day's last stage both cars broke rear tailpipes and caught fire. McRae lost seven minutes after he and navigator David Senior stopped twice to put out the flames.
Sporting: Alister McRae started strongly, setting top six times this morning. The Scot lost time with his master switch problem but he still occupied a top ten placing until his fire on the day's last stage.

Kenneth Eriksson was unable to explain a loss of pace this morning but once an engine sensor was replaced the Swede charged, matching his team-mate's speed to move back towards the top ten. Then an accident (caused by fluctuating differential pressure) broke the rear tailpipe and Eriksson fought against smoke inside the cabin to bring the car back to service.

Alister McRae said: ''The fire was really frustrating. We didn't hit anything, the tailpipe just came loose and it's cost us any chance of a point. It's such a shame because the car had been setting reasonable times when it's working properly.''

Kenneth Eriksson added: ''It was hard to get the car to the end of the stage because the flames were a metre and a half high. Staffan (Parmander) and I were both leaning out of the car being sick for the last 500 metres because the smoke was so bad.''

There has been a close fight for honours in the Group N category for more standard machinery. Local driver Gabriel Pozzo has set the pace on the stages, but when his Lancer refused to fire up in service it made him late at the time control and he picked up 20 seconds of penalties. That was enough to give chief rival Marcos Ligato back the class lead, but Pozzo fought back to reclaim the advantage before the day's end. Other fancied Group N runners hit problems: Stig Blomqvist retired with engine failure, while category stalwart Gustavo Trelles lost time with a small accident after suffering brake failure.

Rally statistics:

Starters: 65 cars (22 Group A + 43 Group N) started the rally

Retirements: Rovanper? (FIN), Menzi (RA) + 15 other drivers

Today - Friday 4 May:

The second part of Leg 1 started from Villa Carlos Paz at 07h15 and covered 425.00km including 143.71km on 6 special stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 5 May:

Leg 2 starts from Villa Carlos Paz at 07h05 and covers 471.65km including 120.43 on 7 special stages. The first car is expected in Villa Carlos Paz at 17h43.

Weather forecast: Staying fine, although there remains the chance of low cloud

Summary of today's action:

SS3 LA FALDA (29.96km):
1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 22m 34.4
2. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 22m 51.3
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 22m 56.9

1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 27m 27.4
2. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 27m 56.5
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 27m 58.9

SS4 ASCOCHINGA 1 (28.83km):
1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 18m 39.9
2. Auriol (F) Peugeot 18m 43.5
3. Sainz (E) Ford 18m 43.9

1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 46m 07.0
2= Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 46m 46.3
2= Sainz (E) Ford 46m 46.3
4. Burns (GB) Subaru 46m 48.9

1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 17m 09.1
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 17m 14.7
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 17m 18.0

1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 03m 16.1
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 04m 03.6
3. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 1h 04m 15.2

1. Burns (GB) Subaru 6m 33.6
2. C.McRae (GB) Ford 6m 34.7
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 6m 36.5

1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 09m 50.8
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 10m 37.2
3. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi 1h 10m 52.2

SS7 LA CUMBRE (23.46km):
1. Sainz (E) Ford 19m 45.8
2. Delecour (F) Ford 19m 53.3
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 19m 56.5

1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 29m 54.1
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 30m 33.7
3. Sainz (E) Ford 1h 30m 42.8

SS8 ASCOCHINGA 2 (28.83km):
1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 18m 24.2
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 18m 25.7
3. Sainz (E) Ford 18m 32.5

1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 48m 18.0
2. Burns (GB) Subaru +41.4
3. Sainz (E) Ford +57.3
4. M?kinen (FIN) Mitsubishi +1m 00.9
5. Auriol (F) Peugeot +1m 35.0
6. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot +1m 45.3
7. Solberg (N) Subaru +1m 50.0
8. Loix (B) Mitsubishi +3m 11.1
9. Delecour (F) Ford +3m 34.3
10. Thiry (B) Skoda +4m 18.9