Peugeot drivers hold the top three positions at the end of the opening day of the Tour de Corse, the third round of the FIA World Rally Championship. Frenchman Gilles Panizzi and his navigator, brother Herv?, enjoy a narrow overnight lead over the team-mate Marcus Gr?nholm. Reigning world champion Richard Burns is third.

Today's five stages to the east of Ajaccio looked set to be held in dry conditions but as is often the case, the fickle Corsican climate had other ideas. Many of the crews had to tackle SS4 in light rain and for the last test, only the first couple of cars got away with even damp conditions as heavy rain began to fall. Panizzi's advantage was slashed by Gr?nholm as a result.

The event already looks set to host a scrap between the Peugeots and Subarus, since the 206s' nearest challenger is Finn Tommi M?kinen (Subaru Impreza). However, the Ford of Carlos Sainz occupies fifth and both he and team-mate Colin McRae will be hoping that the damp conditions will continue tomorrow, since it should suit their Focus/Pirelli package better.

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Peugeot's Gilles Panizzi's 206 WRC has been reliable today, but his two team-mates have had minor problems. Marcus Gr?nholm's car lost its alternator belt for the last 12km of the day's longest stage, SS3, while Richard Burns had an ATS mousse insert break-up in the same test.

Panizzi charged into the rally lead on this morning's opening stage and thereafter, the Frenchman posted a string of fastest times to extend his advantage to 16 seconds by the end of today's fourth test. Heavy rain fell as the last stage was running, though, and that cost Panizzi time - he ended the day just three seconds ahead of team-mate Marcus Gr?nholm. Running first on the road, Gr?nholm had benefited from slightly cleaner roads this morning to keep his 206 in the top three, and despite a scare with a broken alternator belt the former world champion made second his own by early afternoon. He enjoyed slightly drier roads in SS5 and posted fastest time to close the gap to Panizzi. Richard Burns has continued to acclimatise to the 206 WRC on dry asphalt, and the reigning world title-holder holds the final podium position overnight after third-placed Petter Solberg spun in SS4. Like Panizzi, Burns lost time in the rain in SS5 and he lies more than 20 seconds adrift of Gr?nholm.

Gilles Panizzi said: ''It's been going very well today, with no major problems. We found a good set-up for the 206's suspension at the pre-event test, and that makes it easy to drive. It feels much better than it did in Monte Carlo and when I'm comfortable with the time, I can push hard. We tried to build up a good lead over everyone but in the last stage in particular, we had heavy rain and Marcus didn't. That cost us quite a lot of time. But I'm still confident.''

His team-mate Marcus Gr?nholm added: ''I'm quite pleased with my speed here. When the alternator belt broke I did feel the car lost a little power and it lost me a bit of concentration. It was also lucky for us that it didn't happen in the dark! With this sort of speed we can certainly fight for a podium finish. The last stage was tricky for me but for sure conditions got worse for the guys behind.''

Richard Burns continued: ''I'm reasonably happy with how it's been going. We've been looking at the data and I can see where Gilles is that little bit faster than me - he's just a little earlier on the power in corners. I could possibly go a little quicker but I wouldn't have to push much harder before I'd be taking fairly big risks. It's a shame that Marcus got a better run in SS5 because otherwise we'd be right up with him.''

Over at Subaru the Impreza WRC2002s of Tommi M?kinen and Petter Solberg have been generally reliable on the car's first day of competition.

M?kinen's event got off to a bizarre start when he realised that he hadn't completed all of the first stage during the recce. The Finn - using last year's pacenotes - had to complete a further two or three corners at reduced speed before he actually passed through the timing beams, so he lost a few seconds. Then at the start of SS2 he felt he had jumped the start and backed off as a result - again, the problem cost him a couple of seconds. He wasn't able to increase his pace much in SS3 but the four-times world champion still held fifth overall by the end of the day.

Petter Solberg suffered no such worries - the young Norwegian chose a harder tyre compound than M?kinen this morning and even though he felt it might have been too hard to SS1, he posted second fastest time on that stage and arrived back in the first main service of the day in third overall. Second fastest time in SS3 consolidated that placing but in SS4, Solberg spun, clipped a bank and broke a rear suspension link. He lost nearly a minute as a result, dropping to sixth overnight.

Tommi M?kinen said: ''I'm quite happy, really. We're still here and that's a very different situation to when we had the accident last year. We've made a few small mistakes here and there today, but we're still in the fight, so I'm pleased. This morning's problems were just silly - in the second stage I thought I might have jumped the start and I just lost concentration for the first few kilometres as a result.''

His team-mate Petter Solberg added: ''In the last stage I got caught out by some gravel and we spun, and hit a bank. We broke a rear link and the real time loss came in just getting to the end of the stage with the left-rear wheel sitting back in the arch and hanging loose. I tried to repair it before the last stage but it was only half a fix, really. It's disappointing - I was trying to put in a charge to get a good position for tomorrow but it went completely the other way.''

Meanwhile Carlos Sainz's Focus RS WRC02 hit gearbox problems on the start line of today's first stage. The Spaniard found himself in neutral, despite every indication that the car had successfully selected first gear. The problem cost him about five seconds, and then re-appeared on the start line of SS2. The car's gearbox was changed at first service as a precautionary measure. Colin McRae and Markko Martin have reported no major problems on their cars today, though.

Ford had hoped for damp roads to help the Focus/Pirelli package in Corsica, but they got dry asphalt this morning instead. As a result, both Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz have struggled to match the pace of the Peugeots and the Subarus. Sainz wasn't helped by gearbox problems that cost him around ten seconds this morning. He then punctured a tyre by cutting a corner in SS3, but Pirelli's EMI mousse system cut in to limit the time loss. The Spaniard was slowed by the SS5 rain, but he still ended the day in fifth overall.

McRae has felt his car lacking lateral grip throughout today's stages, but the Scot still posted top ten times to keep the points positions in sight. He arrived back in Ajaccio this evening in seventh position despite losing five seconds when he stalled on the start line of SS5. The third Focus driver, Markko Martin, holds ninth after a trouble free day.

Carlos Sainz noted: ''The gearbox problem was annoying - especially since it was on the line of the first stage - but even though we didn't lose much time in SS3 with the puncture our time wasn't so good.''

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evo WRC of Francois Delecour has been reliable today, but team-mate Alister McRae hit brake problems for much of the afternoon. The Scot's front brake discs both cracked near the start of the day's longest test, SS3, leaving him short of stopping power for much of the 36km. He then felt that the front brakes were overheating again during the closing pair of stages.

Delecour and Alister McRae have both fought hard to keep their Lancers in the top ten today, but ultimately neither succeeded in doing so. Delecour came closest - he arrived back in Ajaccio in 11th. But persistent brake problems slowed McRae this afternoon and he ended the day in 18thoverall.

Alister McRae said: ''It's been a bit of a frustrating day, really - we had bad understeer this morning and then in SS3, the brakes went very near the start and every time you built up any speed, it just didn't want to stop once you got to the next corner. They started to overheat in the last two stages too - if they'd been longer, we'd have had the same problem as in SS3.''

Hyundai's Tomasz Kuchar was forced to retire the third Accent on this morning's first stage. The Polish driver's throttle stuck open and although he nearly reached the end of the stage, the strain on the car's brakes proved too much and they caught fire. He stopped to extinguish the flames and reached the end of the stage but with no brakes left he was forced to retire. The Accent WRC3s of Freddy Loix and Armin Schwarz have been reliable today, though.

Schwarz is the top Hyundai driver overnight, despite a right-front puncture that cost him a chunk of time in SS3. Team-mate Freddy Loix has improved his pace throughout the day after he was dissatisfied with his own performance this morning. He holds 14th overnight.

Kuchar said: ''The throttle blocked about four kilometres into the first stage and then the brakes overheated and caught fire. We had to stop and put out the flames - then we managed to restart but it wasn't possible to continue.''

At Skoda Kenneth Eriksson's and Roman Kresta's Octavia WRCs have been reliable today, but Toni Gardemeister has been less than satisfied with his car's handling. The young Finn experimented with shock absorbers and dampers as he tried to improve the car's handling on bumpier roads. He also felt that the car's engine was lacking response.

Despite concerns about his Octavia's handling, Toni Gardemeister has tried hard to keep his car inside the top 15 today. A puncture on SS4 hampered him, though, and he eventually arrived in Ajaccio in 17th. Both of the other Skoda drivers have struggled. Roman Kresta holds 19th on his first visit to the event, while Kenneth Eriksson lost time in SS1 with a puncture and he occupies 20th overnight.

Toni Gardemeister said: ''The guys who get the cleaner roads are definitely going to go faster. The first stage this morning, in particular, was very dirty. On the bumpier stuff we've been bouncing around, so I don't think the rebound is correct.''

Of the Other entries Philippe Bugalski had been touted as a potential winner in his privately-run Citroen Xsara, but the Frenchman dropped half a minute to the leaders on the opening pair of stages. He was unable to explain why, but a change of exhaust parts and a slight adjustment to the differential catapulted him further up the timesheets. Second fastest time in SS3 helped him as he moved up to eighth. Other privateer World Rally Cars to feature strongly included Harri Rovanper? (tenth) and Bruno Thiry (13th).

In the Group N category for more standard vehicles, Peruvian driver Ramon Ferreyros holds a 1.1-second cushion over Hamed Al Wahaibi. The pair have rarely been separated by more than a few seconds all day, and their battle has taken them more than half a minute clear of the third-placed driver in the category, young Bulgarian Dimitar Iliev. However, the leader in the FIA Production Car World Championship has already retired - Kristian Sohlberg crashed out in SS3.

Rally statistics:

Starters: 61 cars (27 Group A and 34 Group N) started the rally

Retirements: Kuchar (PL) and eight other drivers

Today - Friday 8 March:
Leg 1 started from Ajaccio at 08h00 and covered 334.32km, including 95.47km on five special stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 9 March:
Leg 2 starts from Ajaccio at 08h00 and covers 363.14km, including 150.23km on seven special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Ajaccio at 17h56.

Weather forecast: Staying cloudy and changeable, with showers likely

Stage by stage summary - leg one:

SS1 Cuttoli-Peri (17.72kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 11m 33.3
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 11m 37.1
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 11m 38.3

SS2 Ocana-Radicale (11.65kms):
1. Panizzi (FIN) Peugeot 7m 26.1
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 7m 26.4
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 7m 30.5

Leaders after SS2:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 18m 59.4
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 19m 04.7
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 19m 07.6

SS3 Petreto-Ampaza (36.73kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 23m 45.0
2. Bugalski (F) Citroen 23m 51.6
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 23m 52.4

Leaders after SS3:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 42m 44.4
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 42m 57.9
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 43m 00.0

SS4 Cuttoli-Peri (17.72kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 11m 33.0
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 11m 35.7
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 11m 35.8

Leaders after SS4:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 54m 17.4
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 54m 33.7
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 54m 43.5

SS5 Ocana-Radicale (11.65kms):
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 7m 57.8
2. Sainz (E) Ford 7m 59.9
3. Duval (B) Ford 8m 00.9

Leaders after SS5 - Leg One:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 1h 02m 28.5
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot +3.0
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot +25.1
4. M?kinen (FIN) Subaru +39.3
5. Sainz (E) Ford +49.4
6. Solberg (N) Subaru +1m 00.5
7. McRae (GB) Ford +1m 03.7
8. Bugalski (F) Citroen +1m 13.0
9. Martin (EE) Ford +1m 13.8
10. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot +1m 26.0