Peugeot driver Marcus Gronholm has taken an early advantage on the 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Telstra Rally Australia, which started in earnest today.

The Finn and his navigator Timo Rautiainen set fastest times on all but one of today's forest stages to arrive back at this evening's superspecial in host city Perth with a lead of around half a minute.

Australia's stages traditionally punish the first few crews in the running order, since they are forced to sweep clear loose gravel and reveal a grippier surface underneath. But heavy overnight rain left many of the roads coated in standing water instead. That allowed the frontrunners to maintain their advantage: Carlos Sainz, Harri Rovanpero and Petter Solberg all featured strongly, although Gronholm's team-mate Richard Burns was forced to retire his 206 WRC with clutch problems.

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The Peugeot 206 WRCs of Gronholm and Rovanpera have been reliable today. Burns was forced to retire his example though when it hit clutch problems on the penultimate forest stage of the day.

Gronholm realised when heavy rain hit Perth last night that he stood a better chance than normal running first on the road today. With the usually-troublesome loose gravel packed down by the overnight showers, the Finn was able to inch into the lead on this morning's second stage. He didn't look back after that, setting a string of fastest times as he built up an advantage of almost half a minute.

His team-mate Burns looked set to be his closest and most consistent challenger, and the Englishman recovered from a cautious start to move into second overall by lunchtime. But his car succumbed to clutch and gearbox problems in the penultimate forest stage of the day and he was forced to retire.

Peugeot's third driver, Rovanpera, finished the day in fourth overall after a consistent performance today.

''The rain last night helped me for sure today, because there wasn't so much loose gravel in the morning,'' noted Gronholm. ''It started to dry a bit in the day's longest stage and I was surprised that the rest of the guys didn't take time from me in there but after that, we were using most of the roads for the second time so they were clean anyway. There's a long way to go yet but I'm feeling quite confident.''

At Subaru the Impreza WRC2002s of Petter Solberg and Tommi Makinen have run without any significant problems.

After Solberg's fastest time at last night's superspecial in Perth, Subaru started today with high hopes. But although the Norwegian and team-mate Makinen have been among the leading non-Peugeots, they have been unable to really threaten Gronholm's advantage at the head of the field. Solberg started best of the Impreza drivers, holding the overall lead after the second stage and then occupying second spot once Gronholm got into his stride mid-morning.

Makinen struggled on the opening three stages after he opted for Pirelli's wider tyre. But their fortunes reversed for the following two tests, as Solberg switched to a harder compound that didn't work and Makinen opted for the narrower Pirelli and improved his pace. Solberg benefited from Burns's retirement, though and finished leg 1 second overall. M?kinen held fifth, albeit just nine seconds behind Rovanpera.

''We're obviously trying hard and it was frustrating when we got the tyre choice wrong because I had no feeling at all for two stages,'' said Solberg. ''But we're in a good position now and we have to keep this pace to make sure Gronholm can't relax.''

Team-mate Makinen added: ''I had completely the wrong tyre choice this morning. We thought the roads would be dry but in the end, the loose gravel was just sitting on top of some really wet surfaces. We had gone for the wider tyre and it just didn't cut through that at all. But since we changed back it has been better. We just have to be a bit patient and not push too hard to make up the time, because it's important to stay smooth and precise on these roads.''

The Ford Focus RS WRC02s of Carlos Sainz, Markko Martin and Francois Duval have been reliable. Colin McRae's car has also generally run without problems too, but the Scot did complain of a little brake fade towards the end of the day's longest stage. He also suffered an EMI mousse insert break-up in the same stage.

Sainz has been Ford's strongest driver. Buoyed by revised suspension geometry that he fine-tuned at the team's pre-event test, the double world champion set second-fastest time on one stage as he kept his Focus in the top five for much of the day

The retirement of Burns boosted his chances further, and he'll go into tomorrow in third, but ready to battle with Solberg for second overall.

Colin McRae found it difficult to find his rhythm on a few of today's stages and he wasn't helped by some brake fade and an EMI mousse insert break-up in the longest test of the schedule. The Scot held sixth overall by the end of Langley Park Super 2.

Markko Martin felt that the changeable conditions made it hard for him to compete on the Australian stages for the first time, but the Estonian still arrived back in Perth in seventh, only 14 seconds behind his team-mate. Ford's fourth entry, Fran?ois Duval, held eighth after a day spent gaining experience of the conditions.

Carlos Sainz said: ''I had a feeling before this event that we'd found a better feeling with the car and it seems that's the case. We made a few changes to suspension geometry and it's really helped my confidence with the handling. It's nice to be fighting for second position after the last few rallies.''

Over at Skoda meanwhile Toni Gardemeister's Octavia WRC has encountered no major problems, although the young Finn says he lacks sufficient confidence in the car to really attack.

His team-mate Kenneth Eriksson has endured a difficult opening leg. A loose pipe allowed hydraulic fluid to leak this morning, leaving his Octavia without any differential pressure for the first three stages. The problem was fixed at the following service, but on the next stage, a turbo pipe broke and the car lost boost. Eriksson fixed the problem himself before the day's longest stage but the repairs meant that he did not have enough time to accurately balance the car's tyre pressures before the 39km test. Halfway through it, the car's differential sensor failed, locking all of the car's differentials and making its handling even more unpredictable.

Gardemeister hasn't felt comfortable with his Octavia all day but the Finn battled through the forest stages to hold ninth as he arrived back in Perth this evening. His team-mate Eriksson was slowed by a catalogue of mechanical glitches but the veteran Swede occupied 13th as the cars left the forests.

Gardemeister noted: ''I've got no confidence in the car at the moment. I went straight on at one junction today and at another I nearly went off completely. It's not easy - we clearly need to find something but it's not immediately clear what the problem is. All we can do is keep trying.''

Team-mate Eriksson commented: ''I was completely demoralised after this morning's stages, because we didn't get a single clean run. If you get one good stage then you can at least see where you are against the others. But with no differentials for the first three stages, and then the turbo and differential sensor problems, we didn't get that chance. I've had enough!''

Mitsubishi's Lancer Evo WRCs of Jani Paasonen and Francois Delecour were reliable. Paasonen knew that with wet roads, he would struggle to repeat his form from New Zealand last month, so the Finn has spent today settling into the Australian stages and making small adjustments to his Lancer's set-up. His pace was still good enough for him to hold 11th though at the end of the day.

His team-mate Fran?ois Delecour wasn't so fortunate - the Frenchman was encouraged by a more aggressive front differential setting that gave him better handling, but on the day's penultimate stage he crashed heavily. His navigator Daniel Grataloup was immediately treated by medical crews at the scene and he was subsequently airlifted to hospital in Perth for further tests. There he was found to have a fractured ankle and pelvis and bruising to his right lung. Daniel was conscious and injuries are not considered critical.

Jani Paasonen said: ''The conditions this morning made it very difficult to actually learn the stages, and I hadn't done any wet-weather testing here either so I had to learn how the car behaves on the roads here when they're wet. The biggest problem is knowing where the grip is, because it can be great in one corner and then not there at all at the next one. But I feel reasonably comfortable.''

At Hyundai the Accent WRC3s of Juha Kankkunen and Freddy Loix were reliable. Armin Schwarz, meanwhile, felt that his car's suspension softened towards the end of the day's longest test, and then its engine stopped and refused to restart in the following stage.

Loix looked likely to occupy a points-scoring position for Hyundai for much of today's action. The Belgian was fastest overall on this morning's first stage and he held a top five placing until lunchtime. But in the longest stage of the day, he misheard a pacenote and rolled his Accent out of the event.

Kankkunen felt that his times didn't match his performances this morning, but the veteran Finn still finished the leg in 12th after a steady drive. He is now the sole surviving Hyundai, since Armin Schwarz's efforts came to nothing after engine failure in the penultimate forest stage.

Loix said: ''The accident was completely my fault. I misheard a pacenote and went into a corner far too quickly. The car slid off the road, hit a bank and rolled, and it was too badly damaged for us to continue. I'm totally disappointed because we'd shown again that we had good enough speed to get into the points.''

Of the other entries the battle for honours in the FIA Production Car World Championship category has seen seven changes of lead in seven stages today.

After Toshihiro Arai grabbed the initial advantage last night, Marcus Ligato assumed the top spot on the first forest stage. Series leader Karamjit Singh moved ahead in SS3, before Ligato reclaimed the top spot in SS4. He then retired with gearbox problems, allowing another title hopeful, Kristian Sohlberg, to take the advantage. He then suffered a puncture, though, allowing Arai back into the frame before the Japanese driver was slowed by brake problems. All of the dramas allowed Singh back into the category lead as the cars completed the first nine stages.

Other non-registered drivers have also featured strongly - Possum Bourne led Group N overall before his Subaru succumbed to suspension problems, while Juuso Pykalisto set competitive times until his Mitsubishi's engine failed.

Rally statistics - Leg one:

Starters: 69 crews (27 Group A and 42 Group N) started this morning.

Retirements: Burns (GB), Delecour (F), Schwarz (D), Loix (B), and 10 other drivers.

Today - Friday 1 November: The second part of Leg 1 started from Perth at 07h00 and covered 673.64km, including 133.48km on eight special stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 2 November: Leg 2 starts from Perth at 07h00 and covers 539.15km, including 147.27km on 11 special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Perth at 20h41.

Weather forecast: Scattered cloud with occasional showers.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:

SS1 Langley Park Super 1 (2.20kms)#:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 1m 28.7
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1m 29.0
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1m 29.6
3. Sainz (E) Ford 1m 29.6

# This stage took place yesterday evening.

SS2 Harvey Weir (6.97kms):
1. Loix (B) Hyundai 4m 00.7
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 4m 01.5
3. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 4m 01.9

Leaders after SS2:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 5m 30.2
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 5m 30.9
3. Loix (B) Hyundai 5m 31.0

SS3 Stirling West (15.89kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 19.9
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 9m 22.2
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 9m 22.3

Leaders after SS3:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 14m 50.8
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 14m 52.4
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 14m 55.1

SS4 Murray River 1 (20.44kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 12m 15.0
2. Sainz (E) Ford 12m 16.7
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 12m 19.9

Leaders after SS4:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 27m 05.8
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 27m 14.7
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 27m 15.0

SS5 Brunswick (16.63kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 08.7
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 9m 10.1
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 9m 12.0

Leaders after SS5:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 36m 14.5
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 36m 25.1
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 59m 26.7

SS6 Stirling East Reverse (38.93km):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 22m 44.9
2. Sainz (E) Ford 22m 49.1
3. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 22m 52.5

Leaders after SS6:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 58m 59.4
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 59m 20.0
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 59m 21.7

SS7 Murray Pines South (11.98kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 29.5
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 6m 31.2
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 6m 33.7
3. McRae (GB) Ford 6m 33.7

Leaders after SS7:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 05m 28.9
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 05m 52.9
3. Sainz (E) Ford 1h 05m 56.9

SS8 Murray River II (20.44kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 11m 47.8
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 11m 52.8
3. Sainz (E) Ford 11m 53.2

Leaders after SS8:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 17m 16.7
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 17m 45.7
3. Sainz (E) Ford 1h 17m 50.1

SS9 Langley Park Super 2 (2.20kms):
1. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 1m 28.3
2. McRae (GB) Ford 1m 28.4
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1m 28.8
3. Sainz (E) Ford 1m 28.8

Leaders after SS9 / Leg 1:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 18m 45.5
2. Solberg (N) Subaru +29.5
3. Sainz (E) Ford +33.4
4. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +54.2
5. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +1m 03.8
6. C.McRae (GB) Ford +1m 47.4
7. Martin (EE) Ford +1m 16.8
8. Duval (B) Ford +1m 58.8
9. Gardemeister (FIN) Skoda +2m 34.2
10. Loeb (F) Citroen +2m 44.5