Outgoing FIA World Rally Champion Marcus Gr?nholm holds the initial advantage on the closing round of this year's series, the Network Q Rally of Great Britain, which started in earnest today.

The Finn and navigator Timo Rautiainen ended today's stages in the Welsh forests nearly half a minute clear of their nearest rival, Subaru's Richard Burns.

But the day has been dominated by interest in this year's world championship title fight. Tommi M?kinen lost hope of a fifth crown when he broke his Mitsubishi's suspension in today's opening stage, and Colin McRae crashed out of a potentially title-winning position on the day's third test.

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Outside bet Carlos Sainz lost time with a puncture, so Richard Burns now holds a commanding title advantage. The British Subaru driver still needs to finish fourth or higher to prevent McRae from winning the championship, however.

At Peugeot the 206 WRCs of Marcus Gr?nholm and Didier Auriol have been reliable today. Harri Rovanper? was less than satisfied with his car's handling during this morning's stages, but a change of differential set-up left the Swedish Rally winner more comfortable with his car.

Gr?nholm set the fastest time on today's third stage to move into second overall on the event, and when Colin McRae crashed out on the next test, the outgoing world champion took over the lead. He then posted fastest times on SS5, SS6 and SS7 to build his advantage over Richard Burns to more than half a minute.

Auriol has also been in impressive form, although the Frenchman entered today's final pair of tests expecting to lose time in foggy conditions he detests, as he did. Harri Rovanper? has also posted competitive times despite concerns about his car's handling, and the Finn ended the day third.

Marcus Gronholm said: ''It's obviously going well. We're thinking about the manufacturers' championship, pushing hard but not taking any real risks. We still have two long days to go and as this morning showed, this rally is really unpredictable. I've got a good feeling with the car, though - the same sort of feeling that I had in Australia.''

Harri Rovanper? added: ''The car was a bit twitchy this morning but once we swapped the differential set-up it felt better immediately. This morning was crazy - we expected some things to happen this weekend but I didn't think Colin and Tommi would retire so soon. We don't need to push at the same speed as Marcus, because we're thinking about makes' points.''

Didier Auriol noted: ''The car is working very well but I hope there's no fog because I don't normally go well in those conditions.''

The Subaru Impreza WRC2001 of Petter Solberg was forced to retire on this morning's first stage, when it lost fuel pressure. The cars of Richard Burns and Toshihiro Arai have been generally reliable, although Burns was troubled by a slight throttle pedal problem before the day's second service.

Markko Martin suffered from brake bias problems throughout today's opening three stages and after the Estonian crashed in SS4, he suffered an underbonnet fire that damaged the engine wiring loom. The Prodrive mechanics changed the loom, a damaged steering rack and suspension at the following service, although Martin did pick up 40s of road penalties as a result it was all academic when he finally retired on SS5 with engine troubles

Richard Burns quickly switched from all-out attack to consolidation when he saw Colin McRae had retired, and the Englishman has duly kept his Impreza in the top three throughout today's stages. His team-mates have not fared so well - Petter Solberg retired in the day's first test with fuel pressure problems, while Markko Martin struggled with brake bias glitches, then crashed. In SS5 he joined Solberg on the sidelines thanks to engine problems that could well have been related to his earlier dramas. Toshihiro Arai has struggled to cope with the Welsh forests' changeable grip levels, and the Japanese driver lies well outside the top ten as a result.

Richard Burns said: ''Our aim now is to finish in the top four but of course, it takes quite a bit of concentration to finish in the top four on a world championship rally. It's going pretty well and there's no doubt that the problems for Colin and Tommi have made things a bit easier for us but we still have to get to the finish. There's no point in trying to chase after Marcus, though. We'd have to take risks to do that.''

Toshihiro Arai noted: ''It's hard to know when you come to every corner when you're going to have grip and when you aren't.''

Meanwhile in contrast to the Subaru's of Martin and Solberg the Hyundai's Accent WRC2s of Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson have performed reliably today. The third car of Piero Liatti retired on the day's first stage with clutch problems, however.

Alister McRae has elected to throw caution to the wind on his final drive for Hyundai, and the Scot has charged into the points positions as a result. Even a half-spin on today's fourth stage couldn't prevent him from arriving at the day's first major service in fifth overall. Team-mate Kenneth Eriksson was slightly more cautious, but the Swede still held down a top ten placing throughout the day.

Kenneth Eriksson said: ''We haven't had any real problems but the conditions are quite difficult today. I can't do Alister's times when he's on home soil but we're still pretty competitive.''

Alister McRae added: ''We might as well have a real attack here - we've got nothing to lose. So far it's been going well - the car feels good and there have been so many incidents that we've ended up in a very good placing. But there's a long way to go.''

At Ford Carlos Sainz lost time on this morning's opening stage when he suffered a puncture. The Spaniard had to complete four kilometres of the test with the flat tyre and flailing rubber then severed a brake pipe and left him with no front brakes. The double world champion tried to fix the problem before the second test (and picked up 40s of road penalties as a result) but he couldn't, and by the end of the third test his rear brakes had failed as well.

Colin McRae's Focus was badly damaged in a high-speed roll on SS4, while Mark Higgins suffered from handling problems towards the end of the same test. He also struggled with a misted windscreen in SS6.

McRae started today as he finished yesterday evening's superspecial in Cardiff - in front. Fastest time on the opening test consolidated the Scot's overnight advantage but Richard Burns retaliated on the following stage. Then in SS4, McRae cut a fifth-gear right-hand bend too tight and a gully on the inside of the corner flipped his Focus into a series of rolls. The Scot retired on the spot, and he was subsequently taken to hospital for precautionary scans after complaining of a loss of peripheral vision immediately after the accident. His navigator Nicky Grist escaped with bruising.

Carlos Sainz lost time with a puncture and a loss of brakes on today's first three stages, leaving new boy Mark Higgins to fly the Ford flag. The former British champion wasn't totally satisfied with his speed in this morning's stages but he still arrived at the day's first major service in sixth overall. Sainz moved forward to occupy that placing by early afternoon, while a spin in SS5 dropped Higgins to seventh.

Colin McRae said: ''We just cut a corner too much, the car hit a bump and rolled over.'' His co-driver Nicky Grist added: ''We were pushing hard and we made a bit too much of a cut in a fast right-hand corner. There was a bit of a ditch and a bad bump, and it threw the car into the air and we rolled several times. The car's well damaged.''

Ford World Rally Team Principal Malcolm Wilson noted: ''You can imagine how we all feel. The title has been within our grasp all season and we were in control of our own destiny here. It's going to be a long three days waiting to see what happens with Richard Burns. The manufacturers' championship is all but gone now, but we'll be back. Ford hasn't come this close to either the drivers' or the manufacturers' titles in some time, and we'll be stronger again in 2002.''

Mitsubishi's Tommi M?kinen was forced to retire on this morning's opening stage when he cut a corner, broke a bolt in the left-front suspension and lost a wheel. Freddy Loix, meanwhile, lost turbo boost in the opening three tests, and the Belgian's differentials failed to work properly as a result too. Despite a change of turbo at second service, he felt that the car lacked power under 5000rpm and also complained of poor handling.

M?kinen lost all hope of a fifth world championship title on today's first stage. The Finn tried to cut a corner and broke a bolt in his Lancer WRC's left-front suspension, losing a wheel. He had to retire in the stage, marking a disappointing conclusion to his successful spell at Mitsubishi. Freddy Loix's turbo problems cost him time this morning, and a half-spin on the day's third stage didn't help the Belgian either. He had to fight to stay in the top ten as a result, despite continuing problems with his engine and transmission.

Tommi M?kinen said: ''I don't really understand what happened. We had the corner marked in our notes and we didn't take more of a cut than anyone else, but then I heard a noise and the lower arm had broken. We then lost the wheel and there was no way we could continue. Rallying can be a hard sport - sometimes you have luck, sometimes you haven't. Today was definitely one of those days when we didn't have any luck. It's hard to accept that the chance of a fifth title is gone - it's been a long year and we had high hopes. And it's very sad for my time at Mitsubishi to end like this.''

Freddy Loix noted: ''There's nobody home under 5000rpm, but it can't be the turbo because the team changed it. Handling is very difficult too - the car isn't happy in corners with bad camber and it's unstable under braking. I hope we can fix it.''

Both Armin Schwarz and Bruno Thiry complained of nervous handling on their Skoda Octavia WRCs during this morning's opening three stages (Thiry's concerns lasted into the afternoon), but the cars have been reliable otherwise. Czech driver Roman Kresta reported no major problems with his Octavia either.

Armin Schwarz has a good record on the Rally GB and the German performed well in this morning's tricky conditions to bring his Octavia WRC to the fringes of the points placings. He entered this evening's final pair of stages in eighth, fighting with the Ford Focuses of Carlos Sainz and Mark Higgins.

Bruno Thiry hasn't been so fortunate - the Belgian has been unhappy with his car's centre differential, which he believes is making the Octavia's handling unpredictable. He struggled to get into the top ten as a result. Roman Kresta has concentrated on gaining experience on his first Octavia WRC outing in the British forests but rolled it in the last stage of the day and retired.

Armin Schwarz said: ''It's been going well. The tracking of the car wasn't right this morning, which is why it was nervous, but once we fixed that at the first main service it felt a lot better. It's been so slippery today and sometimes we've felt that the tyres have been too hard, when they haven't! All we can do is keep trying at this pace and see what happens.''

Of the other teams overnight leader in the FIA Super 1600 Cup Sebastien Loeb didn't have long to enjoy his advantage. Francois Duval moved into the category lead on this morning's first stage. The Belgian Ford driver crashed out in SS4, though, allowing the newly-crowned S1600 champion back into the top position. He was being kept under pressure by Andrea Dallavilla, though, as the Italian adapted to the Welsh forests on his first visit.

The Group N category for more standard machinery is being led by Peruvian driver Ramon Ferreyros, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer once campaigned by multiple class champ Gustavo Trelles.

Rally statistics:

Starters: 117 cars (73 Group A + 44 Group N) started the rally

Retirements: McRae (GB), Makinen (FIN), Solberg (N), Liatti (I), Martin (EE), Panizzi (F) + 17 other drivers

Today - Friday 23 November:
The second part of Leg 1 started from Cardiff at 06h00 and covered 640.00km, including 137.26km on seven special stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 24 November:
Leg 2 starts from Cardiff at 07h00 and covers 535.91km, including 132.89km on five special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Cardiff at 20h10.

Weather forecast:
Cloudy but mild, with increasing chance of showers

Stage by stage summary - Leg one:

SS1 Cardiff superspecial 1 (2.45kms)*:
1. C. McRae (GB) Ford 2m 10.1
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 2m 10.2
3. Sainz (E) Ford 2m 10.8

* This stage was run yesterday evening.

SS2 St Gwynno (13.67kms):
1. C. McRae (GB) Ford 6m 34.7
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 36.5
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 6m 37.8

Leaders after SS2:
1. C. McRae (GB) Ford 8m 44.8
2. Gr?nholml (FIN) Peugeot 8m 47.7
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 8m 49.6

SS3 Tyle (10.55kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 5m 41.7
2. Auriol (F) Peugeot 5m 44.2
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 5m 44.5

Leaders after SS3:
1. McRae (GB) Ford 14m 29.4
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 14m 29.6
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 14m 33.8

SS4 Rhondda 1 (26.47kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 14m 09.3
2. Auriol (F) Peugeot 14m 17.0
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 14m 21.6

Leaders after SS4:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 28m 38.9
2. Auriol (F) Peugeot 28m 50.8
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 28m 58.3

SS5 Crychan (13.06kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 7m 17.2
2. Sainz (E) Ford 7m 24.8
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 7m 28.3

Leaders after SS5:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 35m 56.1
2. Auriol (F) Peugeot 36m 19.3
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 36m 27.9

SS6 Halfway (17.45kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 10m 00.1
2. Auriol (F) Peugeot 10m 02.3
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 10m 04.8
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 10m 04.8

Leaders after SS6:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 45m 56.2
2. Auriol (F) Peugeot 46m 21.6
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 46m 32.7

SS7 Brechfa 1 (29.80kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 17m 23.0
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 17m 23.9
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 17m 25.3

Leaders after SS7:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 03m 19.2
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 03m 56.6
3. Auriol (F) Peugeot 1h 04m 03.4

SS8 Trawscoed 1 (26.26kms):
1. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 16m 51.9
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 16m 55.0
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 16m 55.8

Leaders after SS8:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 20m 15.0
2. Burns (GB) Subaru +36.6
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +52.4
4. Auriol (F) Peugeot +2m 10.0
5. Sainz (E) Ford +2m 26.9
6. A.McRae (GB) Hyundai +2m 37.6
7. Higgins (GB) Ford +3m 41.9
8. Schwarz (D) Skoda +3m 51.9
9. Ericsson (S) Hyundai +3m 52.4
10. Loix (B) Mitsubishi +4m 17.5