Peugeot driver Richard Burns has stamped his authority on the 12th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rally New Zealand, which began in earnest this morning.

After a ceremonial start in Auckland yesterday evening, today's route comprised six stages in the lush New Zealand countryside and Burns was fastest on four of them to arrive at this evening's end of Leg One in Auckland just under 20 seconds clear of his team-mate Harri Rovanpera.

New Zealand's smooth gravel roads had been expected to punish the frontrunners with thick coatings of loose gravel on the surface for them to sweep clear for later crews. But two of the top three contenders after the first six stages were Burns and his title rival Marcus Gronholm, who'd had to run ahead of everybody.

One of the fancied runners, Colin McRae, was less fortunate, however. His faint world title hopes finally ended when he slid off the road on today's fourth stage.

Behind Peugeot's three cars, Finn Jani Paasonen scored the first fastest time for Mitsubishi's Lancer World Rally Car since its launch in October last year as he took advantage of cleaned roads to hold fourth overall. He was in close fight on the timesheets with Subaru drivers Tommi M?kinen and Petter Solberg at the end of Leg One.

The 206 WRCs of Richard Burns, Harri Rovanpera and Gilles Panizzi have been reliable today, but Marcus Gronholm's car has hit a few niggles.

It lost hydraulic pressure on the day's second stage, spraying some fluids over the car's windscreen. Gronholm attempted to halt the leak by tying a towel around the main pipe for the two stages before lunchtime service.

On the day's fifth stage, his car refused to move off the startline with a slipping clutch, but he managed to ease it into the test and after nearly two kilometres of gentle driving, the problem disappeared.

Burns had expected to be well down the top 10 after today's stages but instead, the Englishman set fastest times on all of the opening four stages to arrive at this evening's end of leg with a lead of nearly 20 seconds over his team-mate Harri Rovanpera.

Current championship leader Marcus Gronholm struggled the most with loose gravel on the roads today, and he also lost time with hydraulic pressure fluctuations and clutch problems. He dropped out of the top three early this afternoon but responded with a fastest time in SS6 to move back into third. Peugeot's fourth driver, Gilles Panizzi, has concentrated on building his experience of the New Zealand roads and he held 13th after the regular tests today.

''I've been really surprised today,'' said Burns. ''Last night, I was thinking that we'd end up somewhere between eighth and 10th at the end of today's stages, but instead I think the roads have been very slippery for everyone, even those who've had the loose gravel swept clean for them. It's good to know we'll be in a good road position tomorrow because even though the top guys will be all together now, we've shown today that we're strong here.''

Team-mate Marcus Gronholm added: ''Already I think we've give away too much time to Richard. We've shown that when the car is working it's capable of doing good times, and I've been a bit surprised in some places that we've been able to do such competitive times when we're running first on the road. Tomorrow our road position will be much better, but of course Richard's will be even better than ours so it's going to be a tough fight to improve from here.''

At Mitsubishi Jani Paasonen's Lancer Evo WRC2 has been reliable, but Francois Delecour felt a strong vibration in his car after he hit a rock in the middle loop of stages. The Ralliart mechanics changed the car's propshaft, rear differential and four-wheel drive unit (which contains the front and centre differentials) but the Frenchman still lacked confidence in the last two proper stages of the day.

Paasonen was only drafted into Mitsubishi's New Zealand line-up 10 days ago, after Alister McRae was pronounced unfit to drive because of injuries sustained in a mountain bike accident. But the Finn has made the most of his opportunity - and the roads swept clean by the frontrunners - as he set the first fastest time for Mitsubishi's Lancer Evo WRC since its debut in Sanremo last year. Paasonen arrived in Auckland this evening in fifth overall, less than ten seconds behind third-placed Marcus Gr?nholm.

His team-mate Francois Delecour has struggled, however - he was frustrated at his own performance as he dropped outside the top 10 this morning. He ended the sixth stage of the day in 14th overall.

Paasonen noted: ''I've been really surprised here with the speed. Of course I'm trying hard but we're only taking some small risks, not big ones. I don't know why it's working so well - of course we have roads cleaned of much of the gravel but also I think the car is working very well. I was a bit worried in the middle stages because I hit something at the rear of the car and it didn't have such a good feeling for a while, but I put it out of my head, forgot it and then was able to attack again on the next stage. Hopefully we can keep this sort of performance up for the rest of the event.''

Delecour continued: ''I don't know what the problem is. I had a vibration earlier in the day but now the car is working okay and the only real thing left is myself. I just have to try to find some more confidence and a better feeling for tomorrow.''

Both Subaru Impreza WRC2002s have struggled with brake problems today. Tommi M?kinen and Petter Solberg each complained of fade on the fourth stage, and the latter driver's glitches continued in the sixth test as well. M?kinen suffered water injection failure in SS5 and SS6.

M?kinen and Solberg spent much of this morning trying to fine-tune their Imprezas' handling, while also attempting to cure brake glitches. Once the problems had been conquered, the pairing moved back up the top 10 and each posted top-six times during the afternoon. M?kinen ran as high as third overall at one point before dropping back in the last proper test of the day because of water injection problems. He holds fourth.

After winning both Superspecials which ended the leg, Solberg arrived in Auckland in sixth, despite a major scare when he suffered brake failure approaching a tight hairpin.

''It was pretty scary in the fourth stage today, when we had brake problems,'' commented Solberg. ''I was coming into a hairpin right and suddenly the pedal went right to the floor. There was nothing to stop the car, and I ended up stalling the engine a couple of times as well. There was a hell of a big drop on the outside of the corner that worried me as well!''

At Ford meanwhile the Focus RS WRC02s of Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin have been reliable today, although the Spaniard did feel that new-specification launch control was to blame when he stalled on the start line of the opening stage. Martin was happier with his Focus, meanwhile, after he changed the differential mapping and anti-roll bars.

Colin McRae's hopes of winning a second world championship were finally extinguished this morning, when the Scot slid off near the finish of the fourth stage. His Focus ended up with its nose pointing down a bank and he was unable to reverse it back onto the road.

Sainz, meanwhile, stalled his car on the start line of today's first stage and spun in SS4, but subsequently recovered to inch his Focus back towards the top 10. Markko Martin has been the quickest Focus on today's stages, making full use of swept-clean roads and fine-tuning his car's set-up to feel more comfortable with the New Zealand terrain on his first attempt at this event. He arrived at Auckland in seventh.

Sainz said: ''I don't have so much confidence in the car at the moment. It seems a little soft, a little lazy in the handling. I can't be precise and on these roads, that makes it very difficult.''

Team-mate Colin McRae commented: ''I misheard a pacenote coming into a second-gear corner and tried to take it in third. By the time Nicky (Grist) had a chance to repeat it, it was too late for me to make the corner. If we'd tried to go sideways we'd have slid down a bank and probably rolled, so we went straight off and the car nose down a bank. It was still visible from the road but a fence post had punctured the radiator and as we tried to get back onto the road, it started to overheat. That meant the engine went into a safe mapping mode so we lost the power we needed to even try regaining the road.''

The Hyundai Accent WRC3s of Juha Kankkunen, Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix have been reliable today, although the latter driver chose too soft a tyre for the loop of SS2 to SS4.

All three Accent WRC3 drivers had hoped to benefit from swept-clean roads today, but none has been able to capitalise fully. Juha Kankkunen was unable to explain his lack of pace, given that his feeling with the Accent in the stages themselves has been generally positive. He holds ninth. Armin Schwarz admitted to being too cautious this morning and over braking with his left foot, resulting in a soft middle pedal by the end of longer stages. He arrived in Auckland in 12th.

Freddy Loix, meanwhile, chose too soft a tyre for today's opening stage and he then lost time with a spin in SS4, but the Belgian recovered to hold eighth at the end of first leg.

Armin Schwarz said: ''I've been a bit harder on the brakes than my team-mates because this is my first time here for several years. I don't want the speed to be jumping up and down, I want it to increase gradually and gain more confidence.''

At Skoda the Octavia WRCs of Toni Gardemeister has been reliable, but the car of Kenneth Eriksson suffered brake problems on today's opening stage.

Skoda had not tested in New Zealand prior to this event, and both Toni Gardemeister and Kenneth Eriksson were pleasantly surprised by their Octavias' pace during this morning's opening stage. But the veteran Swede was unhappy with his brakes on the opening stage and as he tried to bed in new pads at the start of the next test, he slid off and nosed his Octavia down a bank. The angle was so steep that the car couldn't be returned to the stage and Eriksson retired on the spot.

Gardemeister kept his car on the fringes of the top 10, though, and he ended the day in 11th overall.

Eriksson said: ''I didn't have such a good feeling with the brakes in the first stage this morning so we changed the pads and I'd tried to bed them in as much as I could on the way to the stage. At the start time control I tried them and they felt not too bad, so I thought I could push pretty hard. But when I got to the first corner and tried to brake, the middle pedal was like hitting a plank of wood - there was nothing. I think they must have still been too cold.''

Of the other entries Finnish driver Kristian Sohlberg topped the Production Car World Championship - he leads Giovanni Manfrinato by 13.6 seconds. Meanwhile series leader Karamjit Singh was an early retirement this morning with gearbox problems.

Rally Statistics:

Starters: 81 crews (42 Group A and 39 Group N) started this morning.

Retirements: Eriksson (S), C. McRae (GB), and 13 other drivers.

Today - Friday 3 October: The second part of Leg 1 started from Auckland at 05h30 and covered 611.00km, including 117.08km on eight special stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 4 October: Leg 2 starts from Auckland at 06h00 and covers 760.46km, including 204.13km on 10 special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Auckland at 23h00.

Weather forecast: Fine but cloudy, with showers possible.

Stage by stage summary - Leg one:

SS1 Te Akau North (32.37kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 17m 50.4
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 17m 56.9
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 17m 59.8

SS2 Maungatawhiri (6.52kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 3m 41.3
1. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 3m 41.3
3.Sainz (E) Ford 3m 41.5

Leaders after SS2:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 21m 31.7
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 21m 38.2
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 21m 44.9

SS3 Te Papatapu 1 (16.62kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 11m 05.2
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 11m 05.5
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 11m 09.9

Leaders after SS3:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 32m 36.9
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 32m 43.7
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 32m 57.1

SS4 Whaanga Coast Rev. (29.60kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 21m 27.0
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 21m 34.4
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 21m 36.8

Leaders after SS4:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 54m 03.9
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 54m 18.1
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 54m 33.9

SS5 Te Hutewai Reverse (11.15kms):
1. Paasonen (FIN) Mitsubishi 7m 59.8
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 8m 01.0
3. Martin (EE) Ford 8m 03.3

Leaders after SS5:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1h 02m 08.2
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 1h 02m 24.3
3. Paasonen (FIN) Mitsubishi 1h 02m 40.4

SS6 Te Papatapu 2 (16.62kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 10m 37.7
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 10m 40.1
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 10m 41.7

Leaders after SS6:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1h 12m 48.3
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 1h 13m 06.0
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 13m 26.2

SS7 Manukau Super 1 (2.10kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 1m 21.3
2. Sainz (E) Ford 1m 21.6
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1m 21.8

Leaders after SS7:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1h 14m 10.2
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot 1h 14m 28.0
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 13m 48.0

SS8 Manukau Super 2 (2.10kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 1m 20.8
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1m 21.4
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1m 21.4

Leaders after SS8:
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1h 15m 31.6
2. Rovanper? (FIN) Peugeot +18.3
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot +37.8
4. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +46.7
5. Paasonen (FIN) Mitsubishi +47.6
6. Solberg (N) Subaru +47.7
7. Martin (EE) Ford +56.9
8. Loix (B) Hyundai +1m 19.0
9. Kankkunen (FIN) Hyundai +1m 22.1
10. Sainz (E) Ford +1m 22.2