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Colin McRae on top in Cyprus after leg one.


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 Grönholm, 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 François 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 François 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 Grönholm, 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.''



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Colin McRae.
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