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Panizzi on top as Peugeot take control in Corsica.


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 Hervé, enjoy a narrow overnight lead over the team-mate Marcus Grönholm. 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 Grönholm 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 Mäkinen (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.

Peugeot's Gilles Panizzi's 206 WRC has been reliable today, but his two team-mates have had minor problems. Marcus Grönholm'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 Grönholm. Running first on the road, Grönholm 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 Grönholm.

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 Grönholm 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 Mäkinen and Petter Solberg have been generally reliable on the car's first day of competition.



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