Ford's young driver Markko Martin holds the overnight lead at the end of the first day of the seventh round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Acropolis Rally.

Using roads swept clean by the early runners, the Estonian set fastest times and was consistently in the top three as he built up an overnight cushion of well over half a minute over Belgian Freddy Loix, himself a beneficiary of the improving road conditions.

This year's Acropolis route had been expected to be smoother than usual and that appears to have been the case, since only one manufacturer entry - Tommi M?kinen - retired today. Plenty of crews hit problems, though, and the championship front-runners - including Peugeot drivers Marcus Gr?nholm and Richard Burns, and Ford's Carlos Sainz, had to fight hard to keep themselves in positions from which they might mount a fightback tomorrow.

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Colin McRae's Ford Focus RS WRC02 suffered overheating rear brakes on this morning's first stage, as the Scot lost feeling and confidence in the middle pedal towards the end of the test. He also chose the wrong tyres for SS3 and SS4. But the cars of Markko Martin and Carlos Sainz have been reliable.

Martin was ideally placed to take advantage of swept-clean roads this morning, and the young Estonian did exactly that, as he grabbed the lead on the opening stage and held it throughout the day. He has an overnight cushion of more than 50 seconds, and will thus enjoy a similarly advantageous starting position tomorrow.

Carlos Sainz started third on the road this morning and while the Spaniard's only mechanical concern was a lot of tyre wear in SS5 and SS6, he had to sweep loose gravel off the road and ended the day in fifth. Colin McRae, meanwhile, lost time on the day's first stage when he caught the recovering Solberg and had to cope with the Subaru's dust in the narrow, twisty sections when it hung in the air. The Scot then overshot a junction in SS3 and stalled at a hairpin in SS4. But he recovered in the closing stages to hold third overnight.

Markko Martin said: ''I'm happy, not surprised to be in this position because we knew the opportunity was there with cleaned roads to do some good times. We haven't been taking risks as such, but we've been on the limit of the grip, going as quickly as we can while staying in the good clean lines. If we can keep this good pace tomorrow, then anything's possible.''

Team-mate Colin McRae added: ''We didn't have a clean run all morning and it was just costing us five seconds here, five seconds there. But we've ended up with a good road position for tomorrow.''

At Hyundai Juha Kankkunen's Accent WRC3 lost boost pressure at all but the highest engine revs on this morning's opening two stages, costing the Finnish veteran time in the twistier sections of road. His car's engine lapsed onto three cylinders in SS3 and SS4, pointing to an electrical problem. He racked up road penalties as the Hyundai team tried to cure the glitch. Armin Schwarz's Accent has been reliable in the stages but the team discovered a loose water pipe late in the afternoon service halt and lost 20 seconds of road penalties as the mechanics tried to fix it. Freddy Loix's Accent has been reliable.

Schwarz and Loix have both been pleased by recent development work on the Accent WRC3 and they put it to good use on the swept-clean roads that they faced this morning. Loix was fastest on the third stage and the Belgian was a regular in the top six on the timesheets as he proved the most consistent challenger to leader Markko Martin. As a result, he ended the day in second overall, 51s off the lead.

Schwarz would have been closer to his team-mate but his Hyundai team found a loose water pipe late in a service halt and he picked up 20 seconds of penalties for arriving at the exit control two minutes late. The German is still in contention, though - he holds eighth overnight. The third Accent driver Juha Kankkunen lost time with engine problems today and the Finnish veteran lies well outside the top ten as a result.

Loix said: ''I have to say that I haven't been taking big risks today but it's all come together really well for us. I have a good feeling with the car and with the road position tomorrow I don't see why we can't keep this sort of speed.''

Peugeot's Richard Burns suffered from poor feeling in his brakes this morning, although the problem was later traced to a faulty differential sensor. Harri Rovanper?, meanwhile, complained of excessive oversteer in SS2 but he believed the problem was caused by too soft a tyre choice. Marcus Gr?nholm's 206 WRC, meanwhile, has been reliable today.

Peugeot's three entries always faced an uphill struggle to overcome their high road position today, and championship leader Marcus Gr?nholm has struggled to stay in contention as he swept the road clear of loose gravel for his rivals. The Finn lost most of his time in SS4, when he spun at a slow corner and stalled his car's engine. He ended the day in seventh as a result.

Rovanper? felt that he opted for too soft a tyre on this morning's opening two stages, but the Finn was happier the afternoon and he recovered to put his 206 into fourth. Richard Burns lost confidence in his car's braking this morning (the problem was traced to a differential sensor) but the reigning champion still posted some top six times to end the day in sixth.

Marcus Gr?nholm commented: ''There's no doubt that running first on the road hasn't helped today. There's been a lot of loose in some places and at one slow corner I just got caught out and spun. First place looks a long way away now.''

Team-mate Richard Burns added: ''The differential sensor problem meant that I just lost a bit of confidence under braking, and that cost me a bit of time. That aside, of course we haven't been helped by road conditions and it's definitely been cleaning. All we can do is keep pushing and try to stay in touch so we can fight as the event goes on.''

The Citroen Xsara WRCs of Thomas Radstrom and Sebastien Loeb have been generally reliable, although both drivers reported a softening brake pedal towards the end of the day's first stage.

Citroen came to Greece in search of further experience with the Xsara WRC on gravel and the French team has continued that learning process today. Thomas Radstrom showed signs of speed, such as a fastest time on the day's second stage, but the Swede has elected to aim for mileage and he paced himself accordingly. He holds tenth overnight while team-mate Sebastien Loeb (another man keen to accrue gravel miles in the Xsara) holds ninth after a relatively troublefree day.

Thomas Radstrom noted: ''The hardest thing today has been judging how quickly to actually drive, because I haven't done a gravel rally since this event last year. On an event like the Acropolis, you always have to balance how hard you push with how you want to the car to last, and it's been hard for me to do that with so little practice.''

Alister McRae's Mitsubishi Lancer Evo WRC has been reliable, but team-mate Fran?ois Delecour has had a few problems. He was one of several drivers to suffer from a lack of brake power towards the end of the first stage this morning, and then he damaged his car's right-rear suspension on a rock in SS3.

Alister McRae and Delecour had hoped to benefit from cleaner roads but in fact, they found it hard to battle with both the Hyundais. Alister McRae had no real mechanical problems but the Scot had to fight hard to get his Lancer within sight of the top ten. He finished the day in 11th. Brake problems and suspension damage hampered his team-mate Fran?ois Delecour, though - he holds 12th, just one second further behind.

Alister McRae said: ''At least we're getting a clean run, so we can have an idea of where we are and what needs to be done. We know the areas that we're working on and I'm confident it'll be better with the 'Step Two' car - but for the moment, I'd be happy if the car keeps running like this for the remainder of this event so we can continue to learn.''

Subaru's Tommi M?kinen encountered a sticking throttle this morning and cooked his brakes slowing the car down as a result. The Finn then suffered power steering failure when he hit a rock in SS5, and he damaged his car's right-front suspension terminally when he hit a rock and lost a wheel in SS6. Petter Solberg's main technical problem occurred when he suffered a half-spin on today's first stage. His car stalled and then refused to restart for around a minute and a half. The young Norwegian then damaged his left-front track control arm and broke a right-rear wheel hub in separate incidents in SS4. He suffered brake knock-off in SS5, and his car's rear brakes were on fire as he arrived at the stage finish. Toshihiro Arai's car has been generally reliable, although the Japanese driver did feel that he was suffering from excessive understeer, particularly SS2.

Solberg lost virtually any chance of taking his first WRC win on this morning's opening stage. The Norwegian had a half-spin but his Impreza's engine stalled and it took nearly a minute and a half to get the car moving again. That problem - and two separate car-damaging incidents in SS4 - dropped Solberg outside the top ten to 17th, leaving him with an uphill struggle over the coming days to even break into the points positions.

Tommi M?kinen, by contrast, looked likely to challenge for the points positions but the Finn's Impreza developed a throttle problem in SS3 and then lost its power steering in SS5. He slid into a rock in SS6 as a result, and lost a wheel, retiring on the spot. Toshihiro Arai has concentrated on reacclimatising to a World Rally Car on his first works outing of 2002, and the Japanese driver is 13th.

Petter Solberg said: ''It's very disappointing. Okay, we had a small spin but then the car wouldn't re-start and we lost so much time that there's no chance of a result now. All we can really aim to do now is finish.''

Skoda driver Kenneth Eriksson hit problems on the way to this morning's first stage, when it became clear that his Octavia WRC's rear differential was not locking properly. The system fluctuated during the opening pair of tests, often costing the Swede grip when he needed it most. Toni Gardemeister also struggled with grip on the second stage, as the young Finn felt that his car's rear was sliding around too much. He then suffered from a front differential fluid leak in SS3 and SS4.

Gardemeister had differential problems during today's second pair of stages and the young Finn dropped further away from the top ten as a result. He holds 14th overnight, while team-mate Kenneth Eriksson (who also lost time with differential problems) is 18th. Stig Blomqvist was unsure about his car's handling after he hit a large rock in SS1 and suffered from a vibration, but the veteran Swede continued and he occupies 23rd.

Toni Gardemeister said: ''I wasn't happy with the car on this morning's second stage at all - it was so difficult to drive, because the rear end was sliding around. It didn't make any difference if I was braking or accelerating - it was still sliding.''

Of the other entries Ford Puma driver Fran?ois Duval holds the advantage in the FIA Junior World Championship category but as expected, the Greek roads have inflicted a high rate of attrition on the series young guns in their 1600cc cars. Daniel Sola, who triumphed on the last round in Catalunya, lost time when he stopped to change a puncture, and others to hit trouble included Roger Feghali (water leak), Juha Kangas (accident) and Gianluigi Galli (broken battery).

Duval's nearest challenger is Simon Jean-Joseph's Renault but the Martinique driver is not registered for the Junior WRC series, so the closest threat to Duval claiming a maximum score is Finn Jussi Valimaki in a Citroen Saxo.

Rally statistics:

Starters: 83 crews (71 Group A and 12 Group N) started this morning.

Retirements: M?kinen (FIN) and 23 other drivers.

Today - Friday 14 June: Leg 1 started from Parnassos at 08h00 and covered 427.53km, including 136.35km on six special stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 15 June: Leg 2 starts from Parnassos at 07h15 and covers 429.27km, including 158.76 on six special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Parnassos at 18h29.

Weather forecast: Staying clear, sunny and very warm.

Stage by stage summary - Leg one:

SS1 Pavliani 1 (24.45kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 19m 32.1
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 19m 45.9
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 19m 46.6

SS2 Karoutes 1 (18.89kms):
1. Radstrom (S) Citroen 11m 56.5
2. Loix (B) Hyundai 11m 57.1
3. Schwarz (D) Hyundai 11m 58.1

Leaders after SS2:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 31m 32.4
2. Schwarz (D) Hyundai 31m 49.5
3. Loix (B) Hyundai 31m 51.2

SS3 Paleohori (20.52kms):
1. Loix (B) Hyundai 13m 54.9
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 14m 01.3
3. Martin (EE) Ford 13m 01.7

Leaders after SS3:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 45m 34.1
2. Loix (B) Hyundai 45m 46.1
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 45m 54.3

SS4 Rengini (25.04kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 19m 38.1
2. Schwarz (D) Hyundai 19m 43.1
3. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 19m 53.4

Leaders after SS4:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 05m 12.2
2. Schwarz (D) Hyundai 1h 05m 38.7
3. Loix (B) Hyundai 1h 05m 41.3

SS5 Inohori 1 (23.00kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 18m 04.8
2. C. McRae (GB) Ford 18m 09.8
3. Loix (B) Hyundai 18m 11.6

Leaders after SS5:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 23m 17.0
2. Loix (B) Hyundai 1h 23m 52.9
3. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 1h 24m 11.5

SS6 Pavliani 2 (24.45kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 19m 37.4
2. C. McRae (GB) Ford 19m 43.1
3. Martin (EE) Ford 19m 44.6

Leaders after SS6:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 43m 01.6
2. Loix (B) Hyundai +50.7
3. C. McRae (GB) Ford +53.0
4. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot +55.8
5. Sainz (E) Ford +1m 09.4
6. Burns (GB) Peugeot +1m 11.7
7. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot +1m 16.8
8. Schwarz (D) Hyundai +1m 17.1
9. Loeb (F) Citroen +1m 20.7
10. Radstrom (S) Citroen +1m 29.7