Ford driver Colin McRae has lived up to his pre-event billing as one of the favourites by grabbing the lead of the fifth round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Cyprus Rally, which started today.

The Scot's Focus WRC set fastest times on two of today's six special stages, held in the mountains to the north of the event's host town, Limassol.

He holds an overnight lead of just under seven seconds over 2000 world champion Marcus Gr?nholm, who fought hard to minimise the time loss caused by his position as first car on the gravel-coated roads today.

It has been a day of mixed fortunes for Ford - McRae's young team-mates Markko Martin and Fran?ois Duval have each topped the timesheets, and they ended today's stages in third and fourth respectively. But double world champion Carlos Sainz hit misfortunate at almost every turn - transmission problems cost him time for much of this morning, then a loss of power steering stifled any chances of a recovery this afternoon.

Despite the warm temperatures and rough conditions, only one works driver - Hyundai's Juha Kankkunen - retired with mechanical problems today.

The Ford Focus RS WRC02s of Colin McRae and Markko Martin have been reliable, but Carlos Sainz has hit a catalogue of problems. The Spaniard's car broke a driveshaft in this morning's first stage, forcing him to complete the remaining two tests with just three-wheel drive. On the return visit to the same three stages this afternoon, his power steering failed at virtually the same point and he thus had to fight through a further 30km's with the problem.

Colin McRae always said that he'd have to maximise any clean-road advantage during today's opening leg and the Scot has achieved exactly that. Fastest on the first and last stages today was enough to put the 1995 world champion into the overnight lead - and ensure that he'll start 15th on the road tomorrow and benefit from cleaner stages as a result. With Carlos Sainz losing chunks of time with mechanical problems on every stage today (the Spaniard holds 23rd overnight), McRae's closest Ford challengers have been his two young team-mates.

A first fastest time at WRC level moved Fran?ois Duval into the rally lead after SS2, and then Estonian Markko Martin grabbed his share of the limelight by topping the timesheets and grabbing the overall lead on SS3. Martin ended the day in third, 7.1s behind Gr?nholm, while Duval is a further 3.9s behind in fourth.

Colin McRae said: ''I'm reasonably happy. The car's been working well today and even though the stages have been rough - probably a bit rougher than last year - we haven't really had any problems. I'd say that at the moment it looks like Marcus is going to be the big threat, because he's been fast running as first car on the road today and he'll be running just ahead of us tomorrow.''

His team-mate Carlos Sainz added: ''There's nothing really to do now but just drive and try to learn. I'd like to think that we can always learn something but it's been a very difficult, disappointing day.''

Markko Martin continued: ''I'm really pleased with how the day has gone. It was great to lead, of course, even though I think I probably took things a bit too easily when the went over the stages a second time this afternoon. It seemed very, very rough to me and I didn't want to push any harder than that, but the other guys found a little bit more speed.''

At Peugeot meanwhile the 206 WRCs of Marcus Gr?nholm, Richard Burns and Harri Rovanper? have been reliable, although Rovanper? complained of too hard a tyre compound for this morning's opening batch of three stages.

Gilles Panizzi's car suffered substantial bodywork damage during his third-stage roll, but the Frenchman had been complaining of poor handling at the front of the car before his accident.

Gr?nholm had expected to lose time today because his position as first car on the road meant he'd have to sweep clear loose gravel for his rivals, but the Finn fought gamely against any disadvantage this morning. Only the Fords were regularly able to beat the 2000 title holder's times as he kept himself in contention - and ensured that he won't have to act as road sweeper tomorrow. He ended the day in second overall, less than seven seconds behind McRae.

Richard Burns was less comfortable with the conditions and his car this morning, but the reigning world champion was still able to keep his car in the top ten throughout today's six stages. He complained of high temperatures inside the 206 this afternoon and arrived back in Limassol in ninth, just behind team-mate Harri Rovanper?. The Finnish driver lost time on the opening three tests when he picked a harder tyre than his team-mates, but he recovered this afternoon to inch clear of Burns and keep both Freddy Loix and Kenneth Eriksson in sight.

The fourth 206 WRC driver, Gilles Panizzi, struggled with poor handling on today's opening stages and he rolled in SS3 as a result. He continued after waiting to ensure that Burns passed him and didn't get caught in his dust, but the Frenchman lost around four minutes.

Marcus Gr?nholm noted: ''It's been a fairly good day really. I'm quite happy. This morning in particular went better than I had expected, because we didn't lose so much time, even though we were running on the loose gravel and first on the road. We're obviously close to Colin although he looks very strong, but we've definitely got ourselves into a position where we can fight for the victory.''

Harri Rovanper? continued: ''This morning I lost some time because I put too hard a tyre compound on. There wasn't much of a clean line and the roads were narrow, so it was hard to stay on the good grip.''

At Subaru both Tommi M?kinen and Petter Solberg have complained about too soft a rear suspension set-up during all of today's stages, but they admit that a solution to the situation is unlikely until the team can test again after the rally.

M?kinen was also slowed by a digital display failure this morning, since it left the Finn uncertain of his engine revs or what gear he had selected. Solberg, meanwhile, lost rear differential pressure at the end of SS1 and although the problem was fixed just before SS3, the throttle pedal then broke barely two kilometres into that stage. The Norwegian had to stop and fix the problem but even then, he only had 50 percent throttle for the remaining 18 kilometres.

Despite this M?kinen has managed to keep his Subaru in contention and after all the problems he recovered this afternoon (despite opting for too soft a tyre) to hold fifth overnight. Petter Solberg hit rear differential problems near the end of SS1 but even then, the Norwegian held second overall after that opening test. But the problem worsened for SS2 and even though it was fixed for SS3, throttle glitches cost him around four minutes. He ended the day in 16th overall.

Tommi M?kinen said: ''The problem with the display cost me some time this morning, because it's hard to have real confidence coming into corners when you can't see the revs or what gear you're in. But the suspension problem was more serious - I think in our test the road wasn't fast or rough enough, so the rear set-up is too soft.''

Mitsubishi's Alister McRae broke four front driveshafts today - two in SS3, one in SS5 and one in SS6 - and he also lost the brakes towards the end of SS2 this morning. Fran?ois Delecour hit similar problems in the same stages this morning. The team's third Lancer, driven by Jani Paasonen, has run without major mechanical problems.

Paasonen is thus Mitsubishi's top hope after a difficult day for Ralliart. The Finn, driving a Lancer for only the second time, escaped the driveshaft and brake problems that hampered his team-mates Alister McRae and Fran?ois Delecour. Despite a couple of spins and a stall, Paasonen arrived back in Limassol this evening in 14th.

Delecour got a cleaner run through today's closing three stages than McRae, and the Frenchman holds 15th overnight. McRae, meanwhile, broke a total of four driveshafts, and he will start tomorrow's action in 18th.

Alister McRae said: ''It's been a pretty frustrating day, obviously. I don't know what's causing the driveshaft problems but it was really hard work this afternoon when we only had rear-wheel drive for the closing few kilometres.''

Freddy Loix's Hyundai Accent WRC3 suffered handling problems on the third stage of both loops today, and the Belgian was also troubled by a misfire after an air box filter protector somehow got sucked into the filter itself. Armin Schwarz had to complete SS2 and SS3 with a rear puncture after two tyres came off their rims in SS1. He complained of softening suspension in this afternoon's stages. The third Accent WRC driver Juha Kankkunen was the day's only works entry retirement, meanwhile - the four-times world champion ground to a halt with oil sump problems between SS4 and SS5. Tomasz Kuchar's Accent has been reliable, though.

Despite peculiar handling problems that baffled both him and the Hyundai team, Freddy Loix kept his Accent in contention today and the Belgian will start tomorrow in seventh overall. Armin Schwarz was hit by punctures this morning but the former European champion holds 10th, while Pole Tomasz Kuchar ended his run of appalling luck by at least completing a day's action in a works World Rally Car - he holds 21st overnight. Juha Kankkunen's return to a works line-up didn't last long, though - he hit oil sump problems after SS4 and retired on the road section to SS5.

Freddy Loix said: ''This morning was good and bad. In the first two stages I had quite a good feeling and the times weren't bad at all, but then in SS3 the gearshift came loose near the end and there was also something really wrong with the front suspension. When I braked the car pulled to the left and when I stopped braking it shot off to the right.''

At Skoda the Octavia WRCs of Kenneth Eriksson and Roman Kresta have run without problems. Toni Gardemeister lost his anti-lag system though from the middle of SS4 and through both SS5 and SS6.

Eriksson has a good record of taking advantage of road position in Cyprus and the Swedish veteran again used swept-clean roads to put his Octavia WRC into the thick of the top-six battle. Despite one puncture and caution over the rockier sections, Eriksson ended today's action in sixth overall.

Toni Gardemeister felt he'd been overly cautious this morning but the young Finn still holds 11th, while the third Octavia driver, Roman Kresta, occupies 19th.

Kenneth Eriksson noted: ''We expected it to be rough after the recce, and it has been. It's nearly too rutted to be fun here, because you're actually relying on luck a lot of the time. We're not just worried about getting punctures, but also the suspension and the oil sump because they take a hell of a battering.''

Of the other entries a number of privateer World Rally Car drivers have been able to challenge the factory crews today. Manfred Stohl and Janne Tuohino hold 12th and 13th in their Fords, while Gabriel Pozzo is 17th in his semi-official Skoda despite propshaft problems.

In the Group N category, Giovanni Manfrinato holds the class lead in his Mitsubishi Lancer E6, ahead of Karamjit Singh's Proton. But two Production Car World Championship contenders hit trouble - Ramon Ferreyros crashed out and was taken to hospital for observation, while Toshihiro Arai was sidelined by a chronic misfire.

Rally statistics - day one:
Starters: 60 cars (31 Group A and 29 Group N) started the rally.
Retirements: Kankkunen (FIN) and 12 other drivers.
Today - Friday 19 April: Leg 1 started from Limassol at 08h00 and covered 356.80km, including 96.32km on six special stages.
Tomorrow - Saturday 20 April: Leg 2 starts from Limassol at 06h00 and covers 640.29km, including 145.97km on eight special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Limassol at 20h18.
Weather forecast: Sunny and warm, with only a small chance of occasional showers.

Stage by stage summary - Leg one:

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SS1 Platres - Kato Amiantos (11.60kms)
1. McRae (GB) Ford 9m 20.8
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 9m 21.4
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 23.7
SS2 Lagoudera (15.00kms):
1. Duval (B) Ford 14m 18.5
2. Martin (EE) Ford 14m 21.1
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 14m 25.4
Leaders after SS2:
1. Duval (B) Ford 23m 45.7
2. Martin (EE) Ford 23m 46.7
3. McRae (GB) Ford 23m 48.3
SS3 Kapouras - Agios Theodoros (21.56kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 20m 16.6
2. Kankkunen (FIN) Hyundai 20m 17.0
3. Eriksson (S) Skoda 20m 19.0
Leaders after SS3:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 44m 03.3
2. McRae (GB) Ford 44m 09.1
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 44m 10.2
SS4 Platres - Kato Amiantos 2 (11.60kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 9m 21.7
2. McRae (GB) Ford 9m 23.1
3. Duval (B) Ford 9m 29.4
Leaders after SS4:
1. McRae (GB) Ford 53m 32.2
2. Martin (EE) Ford 53m 37.7
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 53m 50.7
SS5 Lagoudera 2 (15.00kms):
1. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 14m 11.7
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 14m 11.9
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 14m 12.4
Leaders after SS5:
1. McRae (GB) Ford 1h 07m 50.8
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 07m 52.8
3. Duval (B) Ford 1h 07m 55.5
SS6 Kapouras - Agios Theodoros 2 (21.56kms):
1. McRae (GB) Ford 19m 51.5
2. Martin (EE) Ford 19m 54.3
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 19m 54.3
4. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 19m 56.6
Leaders after SS6:
1. McRae (GB) Ford 1h 27m 42.3
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot +6.9
3. Martin (EE) Ford +14.0
4. Duval (B) Ford +17.9
5. M?kinen (FIN) Subaru +32.5
6. Eriksson (S) Skoda +54.7
7. Loix (B) Hyundai +1m 06.0
8. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot +1m 08.3
9. Burns (GB) Peugeot +1m 15.7
10. Schwarz (D) Hyundai +1m 18.9