Reigning FIA World Rally Champion Marcus Gr?nholm has charged into the lead of the penultimate round of this year's series, the Telstra Rally Australia, which started this morning.

The Peugeot driver arrived at this evening's Langley Park superspecial with a narrow lead over Richard Burns, Didier Auriol and Colin McRae after a close day's competition under baking hot sunshine. At the close of play - following the Langley Park superspecial (SS10) - he leads Burns by 3.6 seconds.

The notoriously slippery forests near the host city of Perth again penalised the early crews, but since new rules allowed the drivers to choose their starting position based on the championship standings, title hopefuls McRae and Burns were able to capitalise on roads swept clean by others. Joint series leader Tommi M?kinen wasn't so fortunate - still suffering back pains after his accident in Corsica last month, the Finn could only manage sixth overall.

Related Articles

At Peugeot the four 206 WRCs have hit no major mechanical problems today, although both Harri Rovanper? and Marcus Gr?nholm felt that their gear ratios needed to be shorter to compensate for the deep, soft gravel. Gr?nholm was also troubled by front tracking which seemed to go out of line without him having hit anything.

Marcus Gr?nholm set fastest times on today's first two stages to move into the lead and the reigning world champion has swapped seconds with Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Didier Auriol all day. A late push this afternoon meant that the Finn ended the day holding a narrow lead, but he was unhappy with front tracking that kept going out of line and leaving his steering feeling vague. Auriol occupied third by the end after a troublefree day, meanwhile. Harri Rovanper? was less than satisfied with his 206's gear ratios but he still held fifth, while the fourth 206 WRC driver Gilles Panizzi was pleased to hold a top ten position - eighth - by the end of the day.

Marcus Gronholm said: ''I'm quite surprised our times are so good - firstly, because we're running ahead of all of our main rivals on the road, and secondly, because I'm not too happy with the car. It's not a serious problem but on virtually every stage today I got to the end and I knew it wasn't perfect. Something just isn't right in the steering. But if we can fix it, the situation looks good for us.''

Harri Rovanper? added: ''Some of the stages today were hard for me because it was my first time over them. Even though we have good pacenotes you still have to think twice at some jumps or blind corners. But we have to say the rally's started well for us.''

Didier Auriol concluded: ''We could see a clean line on many of the stages so we tried to take advantage of that and it worked. It's going well but there's still a long way to go.''

The Subaru Impreza WRC2001s of Richard Burns, Petter Solberg and Toshihiro Arai have been generally reliable, although Burns was troubled by the car locking up and stalling momentarily during this morning's first loop of stages. Both he and Solberg have suffered a number of break-ups in the mousse anti-puncture inserts in their tyres, however.

Burns charged during today's middle loop of stages to move into a podium placing, and the Briton finished leg one in second overall. Petter Solberg was pleased with how well he'd coped with running relatively high up the order, and the young Norwegian - troubled, like Burns, with mousse break-ups in his tyres - ended up seventh after SS10. Toshihiro Arai scooped gravel into his Impreza's radiator this morning but otherwise the Japanese driver has adopted a cautious approach. He ended the day well outside the top ten in 19th.

Richard Burns said: ''The very best position on the road would be as far back as possible, so I'm reasonably optimistic about tomorrow. We haven't had any really serious problems today and we've made good use of our road position. The Peugeots look quick but I think it'll be a good fight.''

Petter Solberg added: ''I'm quite satisfied really. We knew it would be hard today with our high starting position but we've tried to minimise the time loss and we've done pretty well. I'm looking forward to tomorrow.''

At Ford Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz had no major mechanical problems today, but the Spaniard badly damaged the right-rear corner of his Ford Focus in SS6. He received road penalties after he had to stop and put out a small fire on his way to service. Francois Delecour complained of a misfire this morning, then also had to extinguish flames on his Focus after he hit a tree on the same stage as his team-mate. He suffered a loss of power steering on the day's last forest stage, too.

Colin McRae's decision to start at the back of the seeded crews paid off today. The Scot was slightly alarmed at the pace of the Peugeots this morning but he fought back this afternoon, using his better grip to move ahead of Marcus Gr?nholm and into the lead. He dropped back again on the last few stages, though, since he elected to take no chances on the rutted roads that had already been used once this morning. He ended up fourth overall.

Team-mate Carlos Sainz held a top six placing for much of the day but in SS6, the Spaniard hit a small post and damaged his right-rear suspension. The right-rear tyre caught fire on the road section to service, so the double world champion removed the wheel completely after extinguishing the flames. He picked up road penalties for late arrival, but continued and ended the day in 11th place.

Francois Delecour was troubled by a misfire this morning, but he clipped a small tree in the same stage that caught out Sainz and the resulting damage set fire to some extra oil containers in the car. The Frenchman was able to continue, however.

Colin McRae said: ''I think the Peugeots seem to suit the narrower, more rutted roads because when the stages got a bit more flowing we've become more competitive. It's obviously going pretty well at the minute but as we've seen with Carlos, it's easy to get caught out on these stages.''

Carlos Sainz added: ''I didn't think the post was too bad but it knocked the wheel out of line and when it rubbed on the bodywork it went on fire. I knew I had to take it off the car but it was hard to do that with the fire.''

Mitsubishi's Tommi M?kinen and Freddy Loix have had no serious mechanical problems with their Lancer Evolution WRCs on the car's first full day of gravel world championship competition.

M?kinen found today's stages painful thanks to a back injury, a legacy of his big accident in Corsica last month. The four-times world champion had to back off over several jumps rather than risk aggravating the problem further, and he was in discussions with the team doctor at every service halt. His cause wasn't helped further by replacement co-driver Timo Hantunen having to adapt quickly to M?kinen's pacenote system. On more than one occasion the pair became lost, and M?kinen had to back off on a couple of long straights simply because he didn't know what was coming next. Nevertheless, M?kinen is sixth overall. Team-mate Freddy Loix struggled with his road position but the Belgian held ninth at the conclusion of the first leg.

Tommi M?kinen said: ''My back is very sore at times but I still want to carry on and we'll see what happens. The new car feels quite good on gravel but it's also very big - if we slide into a corner our wheels go beyond everyone else's tracks and we get into the deep gravel.''

His team-mate Loix added: ''I have to be quite pleased, because I didn't have much testing before this event and even though we clearly still have work to do, the times aren't bad considering how high up the field I'm running.''

The Hyundai's Accent WRC2 of Alister McRae has performed reliably today, but team-mate Kenneth Eriksson wasn't so fortunate. The Swede lost time on today's first stage when navigator Staffan Parmander's side window fell down and allowed dust into the cockpit.

Kenneth Eriksson lost time on today's first stage when a faulty window allowed dust into the cockpit, but the Swede's problems were more fundamental in any case. Running first on the road, he's had to sweep loose gravel over the harder surface on all of the day's eight forest tests and as a result, he was unable to get near the top ten positions. His team-mate Alister McRae was the very next car on the stages, so he didn't benefit from greatly improved road conditions either and the Scot was 12th overall after SS10.

Kenneth Eriksson said: ''I'm quite happy with my driving here in general and the tyres we're using are working well for our road conditions, but there's really nothing we can do about the situation. With the way nominations work now it means that we'll probably be high up the order again tomorrow, which just makes things worse.''

Alister McRae added: ''It's obviously quite frustrating because even though you try your best, you know that the guys behind are almost certainly going to go quicker and they'll be able to choose whether or not to have the same situation again tomorrow.''

Of the other teams Kiwi driver 'Possum' Bourne had been expected to shine here but he lost time today's fourth stage when he had to stop and change a wheel. The top privateer driver is FIA Teams Cup entrant Hamed Al Wahaibi in 13th, ahead of local Toyota driver Neal Bates.

In the Group N category for more standard machinery, Manfred Stohl grabbed the initial class lead but then lost it this afternoon when he broke a driveshaft. Local driver Ed Ordysnki was thus promoted to the lead although he came under pressure from Cody Crocker until the Subaru driver hit clutch problems.

Rally statistics:

Starters: 73 cars (34 Group A + 39 Group N) started the rally Retirements: Bakhashab (SA) + 9 non seeded drivers

Today - Friday 2 November: The second part of Leg 1 started from Perth at 08h50 and covered 344.80km, including 147.76km on nine special stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 3 November: Leg 2 starts from Perth at 05h50 and covers 696.52km, including 141.12km on seven special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Perth at 20h36.

Weather forecast: Sunny and warm.

Stage by stage summary - Leg one:

SS1 Langley Park Super 1 (2.20kms):
1. Auriol (F) Peugeot 1m 30.7
1. Sainz (E) Ford 1m 30.7
3. Delecour (F) Ford 1m 31.3

SS2 Helena North 1 (24.14kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 13m 43.6
2. C.McRae (GB) Ford 13m 48.6
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 13m 48.8

Leaders after SS2:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 15m 15.4
2. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 15m 20.5
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 15m 21.1

SS3 Helena South 1 (18.43kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 42.7
2. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 9m 42.7
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 9m 43.0

Leaders after SS3:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 24m 58.1
2. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 25m 03.2
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 25m 05.5

SS4 Kev's (9.56kms):
1. Sainz (E) Ford 6m 01.5
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 6m 02.8
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 6m 03.4

Leaders after SS4:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 31m 02.8
2. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 31m 07.7
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 31m 08.9

SS5 Beraking (26.46kms):
1. Burns (GB) Subaru 14m 52.2
2. C.McRae (GB) Ford 14m 53.7
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 14m 56.3

Leaders after SS5:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 46m 01.9
2. C.McRae (GB) Ford 46m 02.6
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 46m 03.4

SS6 Flynns Short (19.98kms):
1. Auriol (F) Peugeot 12m 08.7
2. C.McRae (GB) Ford 12m 09.0
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 12m 09.8

Leaders after SS6:
1. C.McRae (GB) Ford 58m 11.6
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 58m 11.9
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 58m 13.2

SS7 Helena North 2 (24.14kms):
1. Auriol (F) Peugeot 13m 29.4
2. Sainz (E) Ford 13m 29.8
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 13m 31.6

Leaders after SS7:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 11m 43.5
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 11m 48.4
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 11m 48.9

SS8 Helena South 2 (18.43kms):
1. Sainz (E) Ford 9m 34.2
1. Burns (GB) Subaru 9m 34.2
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 9m 35.5

Leaders after SS8:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 21m 19.4
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 21m 22.6
3. C.McRae (GB) Ford 1h 21m 24.6

SS9 Atkins (4.42kms):
1. Sainz (E) Ford 3m 01.3
2. Auriol (F) Peugeot 3m 02.8
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 3m 03.7

Leaders after SS9:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 24m 25.1
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 24m 27.1
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 1h 24m 29.3

SS10 Langley Park Super 2 (2.20kms):
1. Auriol (F) Peugeot 1m 30.8
1. P.Solberg (N) Subaru 1m 30.8
3. Sainz (E) Ford 1m 31.1

Leaders after SS10:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 25m 56.3
2. Burns (GB) Subaru +03.6
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot +03.8
4. C.McRae (GB) Ford +05.3
5. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +15.9
6. Makinen (FIN) Mitsubishi +1m 18.0
7. P.Solberg (N) Subaru +1m 23.8
8. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +1m 30.7
9. Loix (B) Mitsubishi +2m 15.3
10. Delecour (F) Ford +2m 25.2