Peugeot driver Gilles Panizzi has dominated the opening day of action on the fourth round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship, the Rallye Catalunya-Costa Brava. The Frenchman set fastest time on all of today's stages to build up a comfortable advantage over team-mate Richard Burns.

Behind the two 206 drivers, things are much closer, with a close battle between the Citroens of Sebastien Loeb and Philippe Bugalski, Subaru's Petter Solberg and the remaining Peugeot of Marcus Gr?nholm.

Clear blue skies and warm sunshine brought huge crowds to the roads in the Tarragona region of Spain, and event officials decided to scrap today's opening stage because of worries over spectator safety.

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The Peugot 206 WRC of Gilles Panizzi has been reliable today. His team-mate Marcus Gr?nholm complained of excessive oversteer in SS2, however, and he then suffered a long brake pedal for much of SS3. Richard Burns encountered a milder form of the same problem in the same stage.

Panizzi took the lead on this morning's first stage and the Frenchman set fastest times on all of the following tests to build up a comfortable advantage by the end of today's action. Team-mate Richard Burns looks equally confident in second - despite admitting to settling in slowly on the first stage, the reigning world champion was Panizzi's closest challenger and he repeated that role for much of the day to hold the runners-up spot.

The third 206 driver, Marcus Gr?nholm, lost time when his car's handling became loose in the first stage of the day, and when his brake pedal became long for much of the long (48km) SS3. He still holds a top six position, though.

Gilles Panizzi said: ''It's been going well, although you do have to think about the tyres in these conditions. The temperatures and the pressures are getting quite high and you have to learn to push the tyre to just beneath its limit. If you go over the limit, then you can never push again on those tyres. That was quite important in the long stage, because I had to think about it the whole time. The car feels fantastic, though - I've got great confidence in how it is handling.''

His team-mate Richard Burns added: ''I'm quite pleased to be so close to the pace of Gilles, and challenging again at the right end of the battle. Gilles has a bit more knowledge of our tyres and how they behave, which probably helps him a bit, although he's been giving me some advice about it. The car feels good, but I'm not sure how we're going to catch up with Gilles.''

At Citroen the Xsara WRCs of Philippe Bugalski, Sebastien Loeb and Thomas R?dstr?m have been generally ok. Loeb complained of too soft a tyre choice for the long SS3, however, and Bugalski suffered a vibration from the right-front near the end of the same test. A change of anti-roll bar settings helped Bugalski's feel for the Xsara's handling later in the afternoon.

Citroen had been expected to be Peugeot's nearest challenger on the Spanish asphalt, but the Xsaras have ended up fighting with the Subarus and Fords instead of scrapping with the 206s. Both Philippe Bugalski and Sebastien Loeb struggled to find confidence in corners that were often coated with pulled-out gravel, Loeb then picked too soft a tyre compound for the 48km SS3. The two Frenchmen both recovered, though, posting more competitive times as the day progressed. They finished today's leg in third and fourth respectively. Thomas R?dstr?m admitted to being out of practice on the Catalan asphalt (he last tackled the event four years ago) and the Swede retired in the final stage of the day.

Sebastien Loeb said: ''It's hard to really attack when the level of grip is changing from corner to corner, depending on the gravel. The tyre choice for SS3 was quite bad - by the last 10 kilometres the car was sliding around all over the place.''

Philippe Bugalski noted: ''You really need absolute confidence here to attack and I haven't quite found that yet. That's why there is still a difference between us and Gilles Panizzi - I'm sure we could do those times if we were on full attack. Changing the anti-roll bar helped, though. I have a slightly better feeling for the car.''

Tommi M?kinen's Subaru Impreza WRC2002 hit gearbox problems barely five kilometres into SS3 today. The Finn's car jumped out of sixth gear and the transmission subsequently went into 'safe mode', hampering the differentials and making gearshifts take longer. Petter Solberg, meanwhile, lost time in the same stage when his car's brakes started to lock and unlock. The same problem recurred in SS4 and SS5, where the Norwegian was also hampered by a sticking throttle.

M?kinen has been beaten by his young team-mate Petter Solberg in much of today's action. Solberg was third overall after the first test, but brake problems then dropped him further down the points order. He ended the day in sixth. Gearbox glitches cost M?kinen time in SS5, as he sat just outside the points positions and on the last stage the Finn left the road and lost nearly two minutes.

Tommi M?kinen said: ''After about five kilometres of SS3 we were on a fast downhill stretch in sixth gear. I lifted off slightly but when I went to accelerate again there was no gear at all. We got sixth gear back but by then, the whole system had gone into 'safe mode' so there was not much hydraulic pressure. The differentials didn't work so well and gear changes took a long time. It's annoying, because it cost me at least about 25 seconds.''

Petter Solberg added: ''I've had plenty of bad luck today. On SS2 I had a lot of problems with my pacenotes and I had to make a lot of changes, so I know we could have been quicker in there. Then in SS3 the brakes weren't working properly at all and it was impossible to really commit to corners. It's frustrating - our times have been good but we know they could be better!''

The Ford Focus RS WRC02s of Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae have run without major problems today. Markko Martin's car has suffered from a hydraulic fluid leak, although it did not affect the car's handling.

Ford's two injured drivers, Sainz and Colin McRae, have managed to keep their Focuses inside the top ten today. Both have been encouraged by the car's ability to swap times with the Subarus and Citroens, and Sainz's confidence continues to grow as he becomes more accustomed to stand-in navigator Marc Marti. McRae and Sainz held seventh and eighth at the end of the day. Markko Martin has rarely been more than a handful of seconds off the pace of his team-mates, and the Estonian holds ninth. Reverting his Focus back to its Corsica set-up improved Martin's confidence.

Carlos Sainz said: ''It's been going okay today. Marc and I have been working quite well together and it's getting better and better. The car has been okay, the tyres have been pretty competitive too. I don't know if we can challenge any higher than this but the time in the first run through the long stage actually surprised me. We'd made some changes to the car - stiffer suspension, for starts - but it was quite encouraging.''

Team-mate Colin McRae continued: ''I've been trying to drive in a more precise style than normal because I don't want to have to try to catch a slide and possibly end up hurting my left hand even more. Occasionally on some of the corner cuts I'm getting a bit of jarring in my ribs, but the pace has been reasonably encouraging. We'll just have to keep on pushing.''

Toni Gardemeister's Skoda Octavia WRC has been reliable today although like many, he lost his brakes towards the end of the long 48km stage. Kenneth Eriksson lost his power steering less than half a kilometre into the same test, while Stig Blomqvist suffered an ATS mousse insert break-up. On SS6 Eriksson had to stop and change a puncture.

Gardemeister admitted that he was surprised to be sitting on the verge of the top ten in the big Octavia WRC, but the young Finn fought off fading brakes and concerns over body roll to keep his car clear of both Mitsubishis and his team-mates in 11th. His Octavia picked up some body damage when he slid into a ditch in SS5, though. Kenneth Eriksson's cause wasn't helped by power steering failure for all but half a kilometre of the 48km SS3 and he dropped out of the top 20. Former world champion Stig Blomqvist has not matched Gardemeister's pace but the 1984 title-holder occupies 19th.

Toni Gardemeister noted: ''It's been going quite well today. We made some adjustments to the differentials and the suspension and the car feels quite good. It's maybe still slipping a bit exiting corners, but I can cope with that.''

Kenneth Eriksson added: ''I couldn't believe it when the power steering failed so soon after the start of the long stage, but there was nothing I could do but just concentrate and get through okay.''

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evo WRCs of Fran?ois Delecour and Alister McRae have been generally reliable, although both drivers have complained of body roll and poor handling.

Delecour and Alister McRae had expected to find the competition tough in Catalunya after a hard Tour de Corse, and that has proved the case today. Both drivers experimented with differential settings, suspension and ride heights, but they still ended up fighting with the Skodas and outside of the top ten. McRae suffered a left-rear puncture in SS5 and dropped to 17th as a result, he recovered to 15th after the final stage [SS6], Delecour meanwhile became happier with his set-up as he moved into 13th.

Alister McRae noted: ''We've made a small improvement for here but it's clear that we still have a lot of work to do. The handling's a little better than it was in Corsica. I'm also finding a bit more confidence in the brakes - they have the same bite as they did in Corsica but the wear rate is better.''

Hyundai's Armin Schwarz felt that his Accent WRC3 lacked stability in today's opening stage but things didn't get any better for the German in the following, 48km test. He suffered a right-front puncture after just 15km and had to stop to change the wheel. Team-mate Freddy Loix also punctured in the same test, but his left-front shed its tread with around 15km remaining so the Belgian limped to the finish without stopping. Schwarz also complained of softening shock absorbers in the afternoon.

Both of the Hyundai drivers, Freddy Loix and Armin Schwarz, lost chunks of time with punctures in SS3, but Loix still managed to hold 14th after the final stage of the leg. Hampered by a lack of confidence in his car's suspension, Schwarz was 20th.

Freddy Loix said: ''I'm disappointed that we've had bad luck today. I spun and stalled in the first stage and in SS3, we heard a big bang and the left-front tyre was flailing around. For a while we were afraid that it might damage something but then it settled down and we got to the end. I'm getting happier with the car set-up as I've made it slightly softer on suspension.''

Armin Schwarz continued: ''For me there was no warning about the tyre - it was a long left-hand corner, there was a big bang and we had to stop to prevent damage. The problem with the shock absorbers is the heat - in warm conditions, they start to go after about 10 or 15 kilometres and then you lose all the rebound. We have to find something to improve this.''

Of the other entries in the Junior World Rally Championship category, Spanish driver Daniel Sola led after SS2 but then he eased off too much in SS3 to save his brakes, allowing Andrea Dallavilla to grab the category advantage in his Citroen Saxo. Italian Giandomenico Basso holds third. Pre-event favourite Fran?ois Duval has endured a difficult day, though - like many of the 1600cc drivers, he has struggled with brake problems, and he also lost time with overheating.

Rally statistics - day one:

Starters: 68 cars (58 Group A and 10 Group N) started the rally

Retirements: 9 drivers retired

Today - Friday 22 March:
The second part of Leg 1 started from Lloret de Mar at 05h30 and covered 936.21km, including 176.72km on six special stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 23 March:
Leg 2 starts from Lloret de Mar at 08h00 and covers 513.12km, including 112.00km on six special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Lloret de Mar at 20h00.

Weather forecast:
Staying warm, sunny and dry.

Stage by stage summary - Leg one:

SS1 Riudecanyes 1 (12.66kms):
Stage cancelled due to spectator congestion.

SS2 Pratdip 1 (27.65kms)
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 16m 37.8
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 16m 45.5
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 16m 53.2
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 16m 53.2

SS3 Escaladei 1 (48.05kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 29m 17.6
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 29m 21.2
3. Bugalski (F) Citroen 29m 31.8

Leaders after SS3:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 45m 55.4
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 46m 06.7
3. Bugalski (F) Citroen 46m 29.0

SS4 Riudecanyes 2 (12.66kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 8m 32.4
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 8m 34.6
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 8m 36.8

Leaders after SS4:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 54m 27.8
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 54m 41.3
3. Bugalski (F) Citroen 55m 06.7

SS5 Pratdip 2 (27.65kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 16m 44.2
2. Bugalski (F) Citroen 16m 45.8
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 16m 48.4

Leaders after SS5:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 1h 11m 12.0
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1h 11m 29.7
3. Bugalski (F) Citroen 1h 11m 52.5

SS6 Escaladei (48.05kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 29m 16.6
2. Bugalski (F) Citroen 29m 23.8
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 29m 28.0

Leaders after SS6 - Leg one:
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 1h 40m 31.6
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot +26.1
3. Bugalski (F) Citroen +44.7
4. Loeb (F) Citroen +1m 10.4
5. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot +1m 20.7
6. Solberg (N) Subaru +1m 39.8
7. McRae (GB) Ford +1m 46.6
8. Sainz (E) Ford +1m 51.5
9. Martin (EE) Ford +1m 56.5
10. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot +2m 24.8

Junior WRC leaders after SS6 - Leg one:
1. Dallavilla (I) Citroen 1h 48m 53.9
2. Sola (E) Citroen +28.8
3. Basso (I) Fiat +1m 09.6