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Burns leads the Finland Rally after leg one.

Peugeot drivers Marcus Grönholm and Harri Rovanperä have been fighting off a stiff challenge from Briton Richard Burns on the opening day of the ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rally Finland.

Clear blue skies and dry conditions made the super-fast stages near the university town of Jyvaskyla quicker than ever but also handed later runners a small advantage with roads swept clean by the first few cars.

By early afternoon the leading trio had inched clear of Burns's Subaru team-mate Markko Martin and the privateer Ford Focus WRC of local driver Jani Paasonen. But there was an early surprise when world championship leader Tommi Mäkinen damaged his Mitsubishi on a tree stump barely four kilometres into the opening stage. The Finn - widely tipped to fight for victory on home turf - had to retire on the spot.

After stage 6, with another 40 competitive kms to go, Grönholm lead by just 9.4sec a gap Richard Burns managed to reduce by 3 seconds in SS7. In the penulitmate stage of the day Gronholm was only 17th quickest through the stage after problems and Burns grabbed the lead, which he held through to the end of SS9 - the final stage of the day.

At Peugeot all three works 206 WRCs have performed reliably today. Peugeot's two Finnish drivers have blocked out the top positions for much of the today - Harri Rovanperä grabbed the lead on the opening stage and held it until SS3, when reigning world champion Marcus Grönholm took over until SS7. Didier Auriol lost a few seconds in SS2 when he became unsure of his car's handling but the 1994 world champion soon recovered and he held a top six position throughout the day.

Marcus Gronholm said: ''It's a bit strange, because I still don't have complete confidence in the car on high-speed stretches, but it's obviously going quite well (as I am second overall). This is a long rally, though, and tomorrow's stages will be very tough. Harri and Richard are both driving quickly enough to make sure that a mistake will be punished too.''

Harri Rovanpera added: ''We're pushing pretty hard but I'm still trying not to take any big risks. Position on the road might make a difference tomorrow if it stays dry but since I'm running ahead of Richard and Marcus today, there's not much that I can do about that. I just have to concentrate on driving and leave things like that up to them.''

Didier Auriol continued: ''When I have a strong feeling with the car my times have been quite good. I'm not sure in some places that I could match Marcus or Harri, but we're still in a good position (fourth at the end of leg 1).''

At Subaru the Impreza WRC2001s of Richard Burns and Markko Martin have been reliable, but Petter Solberg hit both rear suspension and centre differential problems in today's fourth stage.



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