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Martin on top in Greece.


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 Mäkinen - retired today. Plenty of crews hit problems, though, and the championship front-runners - including Peugeot drivers Marcus Grönholm 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.

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.



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