Baking hot conditions and rough, dusty tracks are testing the world's top rally crews on the seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Acropolis Rally, which started in earnest today after a ceremonial start last night in Athens.

As in Cyprus a fortnight ago, crews running further down the order have benefited from slightly cleaner roads and charged to the top of the leaderboard as a result. Subaru's two young guns, Petter Solberg and Markko Martin, spent much of the day locked in a battle for the lead with the Fords of Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae, and Subaru's Richard Burns in pursuit.

On the last stage of the leg, both Solberg and Martin were slowed by mechanical problems, and dropped respectively to fifth and fourth place leaving the lead to Ford's Colin McRae. The Greek stages have inflicted their usual damage on the machinery: Peugeot lost both Marcus Gr?nholm and Didier Auriol, while Subaru driver Toshihiro Arai also retired early this afternoon. The action has been enjoyed by large crowds of enthusiastic fans but they in turn have posed a problem: the fifth stage today was cancelled due to spectator congestion.

Related Articles

At Subaru Richard Burns has reported no major problems with his Impreza WRC2001 today. Petter Solberg felt that his set-up wasn't perfect due to him not having run with two spare wheels before and run part of stage 6 locked in sixth gear, while Markko Martin's Impreza suffered from minor clutch problems during this morning's opening pair of stages and from a stiff steering on the last stage. Toshihiro Arai, meanwhile, retired with an engine fire on today's fourth stage. He'd earlier struggled with heavy power steering.

Petter Solberg and Markko Martin charged to the front of the field this morning, with the young Norwegian grabbing the initiative to eke out a small advantage. Martin set his first fastest time at WRC level on SS4 to stay in touch, however, and the pair were separated by less than six seconds entering this afternoon's final two stages. Richard Burns has concentrated on not making mistakes or damaging his car today, and the Englishman has been satisfied with his pace, given his relatively high position in the running order. Toshihiro Arai settled into a top ten position early this morning, but he was forced to retire when his car caught fire in SS4.

Richard Burns said: ''I'm just concentrating and keeping an eye on what everyone else is doing. The stages are smoother this year than last, but there are still rough places and rocks that have the potential to catch you out.''

Petter Solberg added: ''I've been talking to the team a lot about what we might do with road position. For sure the roads are cleaning a bit for us but equally, there are a lot of big rocks being pulled out. In SS3 I virtually stopped on a couple of occasions just to drive around the worst stones. If you take a risk and drive over them you could end up retiring like Marcus (Gr?nholm).''

Meanwhile at Ford the Focus RS WRC01s of Colin McRae and Francois Delecour have been generally reliable today, although McRae damaged his front dampers on a particularly nasty gulley near the end of SS4. Carlos Sainz lost his rear brakes slightly towards the end of the same stage and stopped before stage 6 to fix some electrical problem, without losing any time.

Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz have overcome their high running position to post top ten times all day, with McRae even posting a fastest time in SS4 and SS6. Ford has used mid-stage split time noticeboards to keep its drivers informed of progress. The third Focus driver, Francois Delecour has struggled: he injured his right wrist in a mountain bike accident yesterday afternoon and the painkillers he was given this morning left him feeling extremely drowsy. As they wore off he began to feel more pain, and navigator Daniel Grataloup even changed gear during road sections to ease the strain on the Frenchman's hand. Their cause wasn't helped when they suffered a left-rear puncture in today's first stage, and they spent most of the day recovering towards the top ten.

Colin McRae said: ''It's going pretty well. The damper problem meant that I had to take it a bit easier over the rougher stuff but otherwise it was fine. The stages are a bit rougher in places than we expected - probably because so many cars went through the stages after we'd done our recce.''

Francois Delecour added: ''The pain is bad but I'd rather have that than feel like I did when I was on the tablets this morning. I was practically asleep on the road sections, and I couldn't be precise in the stages - that's why we had the puncture, because I hit something. It's hard work but hopefully I can continue and work towards the points.''

At Citroen the two Xsara WRCs have been generally reliable on their first day of gravel WRC competition. Philippe Bugalski lost time with a brake problem on this morning's first pair of stages, and he is less than satisfied with the car's handling (he thinks it is understeering too much). Radstr?m enjoyed a troublefree day until SS6 when he had an electrical failure forcing him to retire.

Thomas Radstr?m freely admitted that he'd been too cautious this morning, but the Swede stepped up his pace in SS3 to hold down a top ten position, just outside the points placings as he entered today's final stage. Team-mate Philippe Bugalski lost time with brake and handling worries, and he threw away further seconds in SS4 when he spun, but the multiple French champion still occupied ninth, just over half a minute behind Radstr?m, after SS4.

Thomas Radstr?m said: ''It's hard for me to find the right pace because I haven't done a proper rally since the Swedish earlier this year. I was certainly too cautious in the opening couple of stages. The car was behaving very well, though - to retire on SS6 was very dissappointing.''

Philippe Bugalski added: ''The brake problem was difficult because the pedal went right to the floor from the start of the second stage. But in general, I'm pretty happy. When the car is running it's clearly quite fast and if I can get the handling a bit more to my liking, I'm sure we can improve further.''

Over at Mitsubishi Tommi M?kinen felt his Lancer Evolution's suspension was too soft for today's opening stage, but it's been reliable otherwise. Freddy Loix's front brakes overheated in SS3 and SS4, leaving the Belgian to cope with oversteer entering almost every corner.

Tommi M?kinen has lost chunks of time today as he struggled with loose gravel on the road. The Finn felt he was struggling to accurately gauge speed while not destroying his tyres. He dropped out of the top ten as a result, and was 12th by early afternoon. Team-mate Freddy Loix admitted he'd been too cautious in today's first pair of stages, but as he tried to step up his pace he encountered front brake problems.

Tommi Makinen said: ''I don't know what more we can do - there's a hell of a lot of loose gravel and I'm concerned that if I push too hard it'll chew my tyres. I thought after SS1 that if we'd fixed the suspension it would be possible to go more quickly but the gaps have stayed the same.''

Freddy Loix noted: ''I thought I was looking after my tyres in SS1 but when I got to the end they were in far too good a condition!''

Meanwhile at Peugeot Didier Auriol's Acropolis Rally lasted for just a few kilometres, because the Frenchman's 206 WRC hit clutch problems in SS1 and he was forced to retire. Team-mate Marcus Gr?nholm hit a rock in SS3, holing his car's sump and allowing oil to leak from the engine. When oil pressure dropped to zero, the reigning world champion joined Auriol on the retirements list. The sole remaining 206 WRC of Harri Rovanper? has had handling problems but has been reliable otherwise.

Marcus Gr?nholm was quick on this morning's first pair of stages and he entered SS3 in second overall, but then he holed the car's sump on a rock and retired with no oil pressure. Didier Auriol didn't get that far, thanks to his early clutch failure in SS1. Harri Rovanper? had a puncture this morning and lost time, but he recovered towards the top ten as the afternoon progressed. The private 206 WRC of Gilles Panizzi, meanwhile, benefited from a good road position to hold a points placing for much of the day.

Marcus Gr?nholm said: ''It was a rock in the middle of the road, in quite a fast place, and I couldn't avoid it because that would have meant going off the road. And it holed the sump. I really think this one's not Peugeot's fault - it's just really bad luck. For sure my championship hopes are finished now - all we can do is try to get points for Peugeot from now on.''

Didier Auriol added: ''After about one kilometre the clutch started to slip and after a couple more, it went altogether. I'm very disappointed - it's turning into a really hard season for everyone at Peugeot and we just want a bit of good luck.''

At Hyundai both Accent WRC2s have been hit by turbo boost problems today. Alister McRae lost boost when his car's wastegate stuck in SS1, while Kenneth Eriksson had to complete much of SS3 and all of SS4 with no boost. The Swede had also struggled with no power steering for the same stages.

Alister McRae's hopes of a clean run were dashed in today's first stage when his Accent started losing turbo boost. Even though the problem was cured at first service, the Scot subsequently lost further time when he was held up by Toshihiro Arai first when he punctured and then when the Japanese driver's car caught fire. These difficulties and Eriksson's turbo problems dropped both Hyundais well outside the top ten by early afternoon.

Alister McRae said: ''It's very frustrating because we did 200km of testing last weekend with no major problems and then the moment the rally starts, this happens. When the car's running well it's clearly got potential but we need to get reliability sorted if we're going to capitalise on that.''

At Skoda the two Skoda Octavia WRCs of Armin Schwarz and Bruno Thiry have been generally reliable today, although the German did suffer two punctures in SS1 and then heavy steering in SS4.

Armin Schwarz has kept his Octavia on the fringes of the top ten today, while Bruno Thiry lost time in Kenneth Eriksson's dust in SS4 and held 17th with just today's last stage remaining.

Armin Schwarz said: ''It was so hard with the steering to return the wheel to centre. My hands were nearly dropping off by the end of the stage, but at least I'm still going.''

Of the other teams in the FIA Teams Cup for Privateers, Hamed Al Wahaibi survived an off in SS2 to lead the category. His main rivals, Toyota drivers Pasi Hagstrom and Henrik Lundgaard, both suffered from gearshift problems and Lundgaard also damaged his Corolla's sump guard in SS3. Gabriel Pozzo leads the Group N category for more standard cars, ahead of former world champion Gustavo Trelles.

In the FIA Super 1600 Cup section, French Ford Puma driver Rousselot holds a narrow lead over stablemate Patrick Magaud, but only after Magaud deliberately took road penalties to start a stage late and stand a better chance of not catching the car in front. Both Pumas would be behind Sebastien Loeb's Citroen, had the Catalunya class winner not been forced to carry out running repairs between SS1 and SS2 when he broke an electrical connection. He picked up three minutes of road penalties as a result.

Rally Statistics:

Starters: 115 cars (89 Group A + 26 Group N) started the rally. Retirements: Stohl (A), Auriol (F), Gr?nholm (FIN), Arai (J), Radstrom (S) + 21 other drivers

Tomorrow: Saturday 17 June:
Leg 2 starts from Itea at 07h00 and covers 607.32km, including 123.36km on 7 special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Itea at 20h24.

Weather forecast: Staying hot and dry

Leg One Stage summary:

SS1 Mendenitsa 1 (26.92kms):
1. Burns (GB) Subaru 19m 14.0
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 19m 14.1
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 19m 14.2

SS2 Paleohori (10.85kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 8m 07.8
2. Martin (EE) Subaru 8m 08.2
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 8m 08.5

Leaders after SS2:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 27m 21.9
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 27m 22.7
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 27m 24.4

SS3 Inohori 1 (23.00kms):
1. Martin (EE) Subaru 18m 27.1
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 18m 31.3
3. Solberg (N) Hyundai 18m 31.5

Leaders after SS3:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 45m 53.4
2. Martin (EE) Subaru 45m 55.9
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 46m 01.8

SS4 Pavliani 1 (24.45kms)
1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 20m 17.2
2. Delecour (F) Ford 20m 17.3
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 20m 17.7

Leaders after SS4:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 06m 11.8
2. Martin (EE) Subaru 1h 06m 17.2
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 06m 25.9

SS5 Elatia (31.40kms):
Stage cancelled due to spectator congestion

Leaders after SS5:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 06m 11.8
2. Martin (EE) Subaru 1h 06m 17.2
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 06m 25.9

SS6 MENDENITSA 2 (26.92kms):
1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 19m 14.2
2. Sainz (E) Ford 19m 24.0
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 19m 27.8

Leaders after SS6:
1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 25m 40.1
2. Sainz (E) Ford +21.1
3. Burns (GB) Subaru +33.0
4. Martin (EE) Subaru +43.6
5. P.Solberg (N) Subaru +50.1
6. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +1m 05.3
7. Loix (B) Mitsubishi +1m 08.1
8. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +1m 14.3
9. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi +1m 20.0
10. Schwarz (D) Skoda +1m 57.5