French manufacturers have dominated the opening day of the 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Sanremo Rally. Peugeot and Citroen drivers scored fastest times on all of the eight stages held today in the mountains north of the Italian coastal resort, with Xsara WRC driver Jesus Puras eventually emerging as the narrow leader.

The three leading contenders for the drivers' title have suffered badly today, though. Richard Burns (winner of the last round in New Zealand) crashed out less than five kilometres into the day's first stage, while Tommi M?kinen has been hampered by transmission problems on the first appearance of his Mitsubishi Lancer World Rally Car. Colin McRae, meanwhile, suffered from electronic problems that affected his car's handling.

At Citroen meanwhile the three Xsara WRCs, driven by Philippe Bugalski, Jesus Puras and Sebastien Loeb, have been reliable today. Philippe Bugalski though dented his chances of victory - and several panels on his Xsara WRC - when he spun into a big rock on the day's first stage. He found the gearbox jammed between two gears when the car came to rest, and lost valuable time resetting the transmission. He recovered quickly thereafter, though and had moved back into the points by early afternoon.

Team-mate Jesus Puras made no such errors, though, and the Spaniard led for much of the day. A slow time on the day's fifth stage - caused by 'over-cautious' pacenotes - dropped him behind Gilles Panizzi into second, but he fought back to hold a narrow lead overnight. The third Xsara WRC driver Sebastien Loeb has acclimatised quickly on his first world championship outing in the car. The runaway leader of this year's FIA Super 1600 Cup held eighth after the first stage and then moved into the points, despite complaining of excessive oversteer in the first loop of stages.

Jesus Puras said: ''It's been going very well. The car feels good and apart from the stage where I my pacenotes were too cautious, I've been happy with my driving. I had a small vibration in the day's third stage which I suspect was an ATS mousse insert that we'd hit on the previous test, but it wasn't a big deal. I'm enjoying the fight.''

Philippe Bugalski added: ''I'm quite pleased, although obviously the spin on the first stage was annoying. I thought the car was just going to spin but it hit the big rock and that threw it around, so the front spoiler got damaged too. After that I could feel the front of the car going light in the faster sections! In SS3 I tried too hard and lost time going sideways, but in SS4 I was neat and set fastest time. There's still a long way to go, so I'm going to keep pushing.''

At Peugeot the 206 WRCs driven by Gilles Panizzi and Didier Auriol have been reliable as well, but Marcus Gr?nholm lost time in the day's last two tests when his steering wheel gear paddle refused to downshift.

Gilles Panizzi set fastest time on today's first stage but last year's winner felt that the initial settings on his 206 WRC were taking him too close to his own limits too often. He dropped to second, but then reverted back to a previous set-up at the following service. Thereafter, he pronounced himself happier as he inched ahead of Jesus Puras to reclaim the lead. Team-mate Marcus Gr?nholm has occasionally eclipsed the French asphalt ace, as the reigning world champion built up further confidence on asphalt. The Finn set top-three times for much of the day to hold third overall, before late gearbox problems dropped him to sixth. The remaining 206 WRC of Didier Auriol occupied fourth, although the 1994 world champion maintained that he would have preferred Peugeot's six-speed gearbox instead of the five-speed unit fitted to his car.

Gilles Panizzi said: ''I'm much happier with the car now. This morning it was quite difficult to drive and I found myself at my limit a lot of the time, especially under braking. Now the setting is much easier for me - perfect, really. It's turning into a good fight between me, Jesus and even Marcus. I'm not surprised at Marcus's times - he's been getting quicker on every asphalt rally he does.''

Marcus Gr?nholm added: ''I've been getting more confident with every stage. At the start I was holding my foot on the brake pedal too much and the brakes actually started to fade near the end of the day's longest stage. I got better after that, and it's nice to beat Gilles occasionally! I don't know if I have a chance to win this rally but we're still in there and still fighting!''

The three Ford Focus RS WRC01s of Carlos Sainz and Francois Delecour have been reliable today, but Colin McRae's example has suffered from an intermittent electrical glitch that has caused the differentials to malfunction.

Ford had expected a hard fight against the French manufacturers and the prediction as proved correct, for while Carlos Sainz has generally been the fastest non-Peugeot/Citroen today, the Spaniard could manage no better than seventh overall by the end of the day. Team-mate Fran?ois Delecour swapped seconds with the double world champion and held eighth, but transmission problems slowed Colin McRae and the Scot languished outside the top ten, more than half a minute behind his team-mates.

Colin McRae said: ''The differential problem's been annoying because we should at least be able to set the same times as Carlos and Fran?ois, and we haven't. It's clear that the performance has improved since Catalunya but probably not enough. This isn't doing my championship chances much good.''

Carlos Sainz added: ''We've made improvements since Catalunya but it's not enough - we knew that before we came here. I'm fairly happy with the way that the car is handling. It feels fast, but the times don't quite match that. I'm not even sure now, though, how we can make it go any quicker.''

At Subaru Richard Burns damaged a wheel and suspension on his Impreza WRC2001 as he crashed out of the event on the day's first stage. Petter Solberg's example occasionally lapsed into its gearbox's 'safe mode', which greatly lengthened the amount of time needed to change gear. Markko Martin's and Toshihiro Arai's cars have been reliable.

Richard Burns was the first retirement of the event after the Englishman slid off the road on a tightening left-hand corner, barely four kilometres into the day's first stage. His Impreza slid down a sheer drop and couldn't be recovered in time for him to continue. Petter Solberg was hit by gearbox glitches but the young Norwegian was still satisfied to keep Francois Delecour and Carlos Sainz in his sights from ninth overall. His team-mate Markko Martin held tenth despite early power steering problems. Toshihiro Arai clipped a rock in the day's third test but has performed steadily otherwise. The Japanese driver was outside the top 20, however.

Petter Solberg said: ''I've had a few problems with the gearbox and some bad understeer but generally I'm happy. I'm really encouraged to be so near the good guys on asphalt like Fran?ois (Delecour).''

Richard Burns noted: ''I still don't really know what happened. We slid into a corner as usual but we didn't regain the grip mid-corner like we normally do and it just dropped down a bank. There was no way we could get back on the road. In terms of the championship, Tommi (M?kinen) and Colin (McRae) don't seem to be doing so well at the moment so hopefully the other guys can keep them out of the points.''

The new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo WRC has hit transmission problems on its first day of world championship competition. Tommi M?kinen's and Freddy Loix's machines have both struggled with a lack of differential locking, although Ralliart subsequently 'locked' the Belgian's set-up in an attempt to at least find baseline for comparison.

Transmission problems hampered Tommi M?kinen and Freddy Loix today, and neither was able to get near the top ten as a result. Ralliart engineers were still fighting to pinpoint and cure the problem at this evening's final service.

Tommi Makinen said: ''It's very frustrating. We've lost too much time already, really. The bad thing is that unless we can find a clean run, we still don't know how competitive the car is against the others.''

Freddy Loix continued: ''It's been difficult to stay on the road at times, but we have to keep trying if we're going to find out the problem before Corsica. We had a pretty clean run over the last loop of stages but understeer was a big problem, so we have to investigate that now as well.''

Armin Schwarz's Skoda Octavia WRC retired at the end of the first stage with alternator problems. Bruno Thiry's car hit occasional differential glitches on this morning's first loop that caused massive understeer, particularly on SS2bis. Roman Kresta's car has been reliable, although the Czech driver damaged it by hitting a wall on the same test.

The big Octavia WRCs have struggled to stave off hordes of privateer Imprezas, 206 WRCs and Corollas today. Armin Schwarz didn't get a chance, thanks to early alternator failure, but Bruno Thiry fought gamely despite dissatisfaction with his transmission and initial tyre choice. He was struggling to stay in the top 20, however. Roman Kresta built experience of the Sanremo roads (and further knowledge of the Octavia) but he fell behind plenty of privateer crews in the process.

Bruno Thiry said: ''The car handling isn't bad now, once we fixed the differential glitches this morning and I moved onto a different type of tyre. But it's clear that we're going to have to fight hard to get near the top ten and manufacturers' points.''

At Hyundai Piero Liatti hit power steering difficulties on today's first stage, then crashed out around a kilometre before the finish of the test. Alister McRae's Accent WRC2 has been generally reliable, although the Scot damaged it in his SS6 accident.

With little development on asphalt since Catalunya, Alister McRae always knew he faced an uphill struggle to hold a top ten placing in Italy and that has proven the case today. But the Scot's cause wasn't helped when he clipped the front and rear wheels, then beached the car in an accident in SS6. It took five minutes before enough spectators were present to return the Accent to the stage.

Alister McRae said: ''We knew it would be hard work and that's how it's turned out. We just have to hope that a lot of the guys in front hit trouble tomorrow.''

Of the other teams in the FIA Super 1600 Cup, Andrea Dallavilla has dominated the timesheets in his Fiat Punto, despite being less than totally satisfied with his car's set-up. Others have hit problems - Giandomenico Basso broke a gearbox mounting, Patrick Magaud suffered a puncture and then slid off the road as a result, and Niall McShea damaged the right-rear of his car on a SS2bis corner that caught out several.

The FIA Teams Cup section for private crews has been controlled by reigning European Champion Henrik Lundgaard, although the Dane's run hasn't been entirely troublefree. He punctured in SS1 and then broke a wheel rim in SS3. His title rival Pasi Hagstrom has been unable to fight back, as he's still learning how to drive a World Rally Car on asphalt on this, his first outing on the surface.

Meanwhile, local driver Alex Fiorio has dominated the timesheets in the Group N category for more standard cars. But category world title hopeful Gabriel Pozzo is still in contention for points, despite mild brake problems this morning.

Rally Statistics:

Starters: 73 cars (60 Group A + 13 Group N) started the rally Retirements: Burns (GB), Schwarz (D), Liatti (I) + 7 other drivers

Today - Friday 4 October: The second part of Leg 2 started from Sanremo at 06h00 and covered 523.91km, including 138.45km on eight special stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 5 October: Leg 2 starts from Sanremo at 06h00 and covers 520.35km, including 142.01km on eight special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Sanremo at 20.02.

Weather forecast: Overcast with a greater chance of low cloud, fog and showers.

Stage by stage summary - Leg One:

SS1 Coldirodi 1 (12.41kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 7m 55.7
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 7m 57.3
3. Sainz (E) Ford 7m 58.0

SS2 Lanagn 1 (25.29kms):
1. Puras (E) Citroen 16m 48.2
2. Bugalski (F) Citroen 16m 49.7
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 16m 56.6

Leaders after SS2:
1. Puras (E) Citroen 24m 46.4
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 24m 52.3
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 24m 56.3

SS2b Rezzo 1 (12.29kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 9m 12.4
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 14.2
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 9m 14.5

Leaders after SS2b:
1. Puras (E) Citroen 34m 02.8
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 34m 04.7
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 34m 10.5

SS3 San Bernardo 1 (19.44kms):
1. Puras (E) Citroen 11m 34.8
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 11m 36.8
3. Bugalski (F) Citroen 11m 37.7

Leaders after SS3:
1. Puras (E) Citroen 45m 37.6
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 45m 41.5
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 45m 52.8

SS4 Nava 1 (19.03kms):
1. Bugalski (F) Citroen 12m 00.5
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 12m 03.5
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 12m 03.6

Leaders after SS4:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 57m 45.1
2. Puras (E) Citroen 57m 45.6
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 57m 56.3

SS5 Coldirodi 2 (12.41kms):
1. Bugalski (F) Citroen 7m 53.5
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 7m 53.1
3. P.Solberg (N) Subaru 7m 57.1

Leaders after SS5:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 1h 05m 38.7
2. Puras (E) Citroen 1h 05m 42.9
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 05m 54.5

SS6 Langan 2 (25.29kms):
1. Puras (E) Citroen 16m 41.9
2. Bugalski (F) Citroen 16m 46.1
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 16m 47.5

Leaders after SS6:
1. Puras (E) Citroen 1h 22m 24.8
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 1h 22m 26.2
3. Bugalski (F) Citroen 1h 22m 46.3

SS6b Rezzo 2 (12.29kms):
1. Bugalski (F) Citroen 9m 11.2
2. Puras (E) Citroen 9m 16.6
3. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 9m 16.7

Leaders after SS6b:
1. Puras (E) Citroen 1h 31m 41.4
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +1.5
3. Bugalski (F) Citroen +16.1
4. Auriol (F) Peugeot +26.6
5. Loeb (F) Citroen +31.4
6. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot +36.7
7. Sainz (E) Ford +50.7
8. Delecour (F) Ford +1m 09.2
9. Travaglia (I) Peugeot +1m 11.7
10. P.Solberg (N) Subaru +1m 13.7