Peugeot driver Marcus Gronholm has assumed a strong position in the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Rally of Great Britain, which began in earnest from its host city, Cardiff, this morning.

The Finn's 206 WRC set fastest times on all of today's forest stages and he built up a lead of almost 50 seconds, although Gronholm's cause was helped when his close rival and team-mate Richard Burns slid off and damaged his similar Peugeot's exhaust on only the second stage this morning.

The opening day of the event has been held in a strange blend of weather conditions, with clear blue skies overhead and soaking-wet, muddy and slippery roads in the Welsh forests. As a result, Burns was not the only top driver to be caught out - his fellow countryman Colin McRae slid off on this morning's opening stage, while MotoGP world champion Valentino Rossi retired in the same test after he was unsighted by the sun (low in the sky in Wales at this time of year) and slid down a bank.

Gronholm's Peugeot 206 WRC has been reliable. Harri Rovanpera's car suffered from a suspected clutch problem on this morning's second stage, but Peugeot mechanics changed the offending unit at the following service. The Finn then suffered a jump-start penalty on SS5, when a small piece of the handbrake lever came loose and he nudged the car forwards as he was trying to prevent it from falling into his footwell.

Burns' car has been reliable in general, but he lost power when he slid off on the day's second stage and flattened 206's exhaust. He also suffered a loss of differential pressure on the road section immediately after SS5.

Gronholm set fastest time on this morning's first stage, just half a second clear of his team-mate Burns as the expected battle between the pair began to take shape. But it suffered a setback on the next stage, as Burns slid off under braking and flattened his car's exhaust. The Englishman lost well over a minute because of the resulting lack of power but he still fought his way back up the field to end the leg in eighth.

Gronholm, meanwhile, continued to set the pace and he set fastest times on all of the day's forest stages to build up an advantage of almost 50 seconds. He end the day 48.3 seconds up on Subaru's Petter Solberg.

The third Peugeot driver, Rovanpera, lost time with a small clutch problem and then a 10-second jump-start penalty, caused when a piece of his handbrake came loose at the start line of SS5. The Finn also spun in the day's last forest stage but he still managed to finish the day in fifth overall. Peugeot's fourth entry, Gilles Panizzi, lies outside the top 10 after a steady drive.

''I've been driving at a normal level of attack today, so I'm quite pleased that we've ended up with such a good advantage,'' commented Gronholm. ''Obviously this morning it was quite close between us and Richard and then he had his problem, so now we look quite comfortable up front. But there's a long way to go yet and as we've seen today, this is the sort of rally where you can slide off very easily, so we have to keep concentration.''

''I just braked a little too late for a corner after a fast approach,'' noted Burns. ''We put all four wheels off the road and the car ended up on top of a bank. The exhaust was damaged so we'd no power - in fact, even getting back onto the road was a struggle. Then we lost a lot more time going through the rest of the stage.''

At Ford none of the three nominated Focus RS WRC02s have encountered any serious mechanical problems.

Colin McRae's hopes of securing a fourth win on this event took a serious blow on this morning's first stage, when the Scot slid wide at junction and got stuck in mud. He dropped to 10th as a result, but recovered to seventh by the end of SS7.

The Ford challenge has been spearheaded by Markko Martin for much of today though - after his fastest time in last night's superspecial, the young Estonian has held a top three position throughout today's forest stages and he ended the leg in third overall, battling with Subaru's Petter Solberg.

Ford veteran Carlos Sainz has maintained a watching brief behind his younger team-mate, and despite concerns about one of his tyre choices for SS5, the double world champion kept his Focus in fourth.

Ford's fourth entry, former British champion Mark Higgins, held 10th until a 10 second time penalty was incurred when he left the final service park late after his car's engine briefly failed to start. He concluded play, following the Cardiff super special in 12th overall.

''We can keep pushing but unless Marcus has a problem, I don't think anyone's going to stop him from winning here,'' said McRae. ''For us, it's more a question of just trying to keep the car on the road.''

Team-mate Martin added: ''I've been a bit surprised that some of the other guys haven't gone quicker, but we're obviously setting reasonable times and the car has been completely reliable for me.''

The Subaru Impreza WRC2002 of Petter Solberg has been reliable. The similar car of Tommi Makinen showed a smoking turbocharger after the day's first two stages, although Subaru estimated that this had not cost him performance. However, the turbo was changed at the first available service as a precaution.

Solberg hasn't been entirely satisfied with all of his tyre choices today but the Norwegian has, once again, been the top non-Peugeot on the timesheets. He's enjoyed a fight with fellow young star Martin for second overall and Solberg made the position his by a handful of seconds.

Team-mate Makinen had a spin and a half-spin on the day's first stage, but recovered to hold sixth.

Solberg noted: ''We can't touch Marcus but the best we can do is try to hold onto second overall and hope that in the tricky conditions, something might happen to him. It can certainly be that way on this event.''

At Citroen the Xsara WRCs of Sebastien Loeb and Thomas Radstrom have run well.

Citroen came to the Rally GB to gain experience for next year, and both Radstrom and Loeb have adopted cautious approaches. That didn't stop Loeb from clouting the rear of his car on this morning's first stage, but the young Frenchman still completed the day in ninth. Team-mate Radstrom has been slower, and he lies in 18th.

''The biggest problem I'm finding is that the road conditions change from corner to corner,'' noted Loeb. ''You can have good grip at one section and then come over a crest and there's nothing - you could just slide straight off. My aim here is to get experience and try settings for the team, so I'm determined to get round.''

The Hyundai Accents of Freddy Loix and Juha Kankkunen have enjoyed good reliability, although the windscreen washer on the Belgian's car failed during this morning's opening stages. Their team-mate Armin Schwarz has also been happy with the mechanical strength of his car, but he has suffered intercom failure on two different stages.

Four-times world champion Kankkunen and Loix have upheld Hyundai honour. Loix tenth and Kankkunen eleventh, five seconds down. Their team-mate Armin Schwarz lost time with intercom failures but he is less than half a minute further adrift in 13th overall.

Kankkunen noted: ''It's been going fine for me today. The conditions are quite difficult when we're having second runs through the stages, because the loose gravel gets cleared off the road and you get a mixture of ruts and polished hard rock, which is very slippery.''

At Skoda meanwhile the Octavia WRCs of Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta have been reliable. Kenneth Eriksson, however, suffered differential problems on this morning's opening pair of stages and then he lost his brakes completely in SS6.

All three Skoda drivers have reported a lack of grip in the slippery conditions though, particularly on the second run through Trawscoed this afternoon, Eriksson lost time with differential problems but he and team-mate Toni Gardemeister entered the closing forest test separated by just a second, albeit outside of the top 10. Brake problems in that stage dropped Eriksson back, however. Following the super special Gardemeister was 14th and Eriksson a disappointing 20th.

Young Czech driver Roman Kresta has found the Welsh terrain especially challenging, and he lies in 21st.

Gardemeister commented: ''It's been really hard work today because the roads have been so slippery that you just feel you've got no grip at all. I don't know if everyone else is having the same problems but when Kenneth and I have had clean runs, the gap between us has been very small so I don't think the package can go much quicker than this.''

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evo WRC of Francois Delecour has been reliable. However, his team-mate Jani Paasonen suffered a broken clutch on the road section from SS5 to service. The Finn was able to reach his Ralliart mechanics without penalties, though.

Mitsubishi's last-minute replacement for Alister McRae, Justin Dale, meanwhile was forced to retire after the second stage this morning when accident damage was found to have kinked his Lancer's roll cage.

Dale was caught out by the low sun in the sky in SS2 and rolled his Lancer. He reached service, despite having to stop and fill a damaged radiator with water at every opportunity in SS3, but when Ralliart mechanics examined his car they discovered too much damage to the roll cage for him to continue.

Delecour has competed with heavy strapping across his chest - a legacy of his Rally Australia accident - but the Frenchman has kept his Lancer in the top 20. Team-mate Paasonen has had a couple of overshoots and one two-wheel moment but he ended the day 17th overall, just one place behind Delecour.

Dale said: ''I'm totally gutted. I just came to a fairly slow left-hander after a long straight and the sun appeared through the trees and totally blinded me. Obviously we knew the bodyshell was quite badly damaged but we did everything we could to overcome the broken radiator - we stopped at every stream possible in the second stage to top up the water. To make it back to service in time and then realise that the cage is too badly damaged is really disappointing.''

Of the other entries there has been plenty of thrilling competition in the Junior World Rally Championship category of the event, with four different leaders in the first four stages. MG driver Gwyndaf Evans led after last night's superspecial, but Finn Janne Tuohino charged in his Saxo to grab the advantage on this morning's first forest stage. Junior WRC title hopeful Daniel Sola then claimed the top spot in SS3, before suffering a puncture and dropping nearly a minute. That allowed Tuohino back into the top spot, ahead of the other title aspirant Andrea Dallavilla, who has survived punctures on two separate stages. British challengers Evans and Niall McShea remain in contention, however, and Sola has already started to fight back.

World MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi failed to complete a single forest stage, meanwhile. On his debut in the FIA World Rally Championship, the Italian put the back wheels of his Peugeot 206 WRC off the road in the opening stage this morning and even after he managed to find some spectators, he was unable to regain the stage. His car was totally undamaged in the incident and once it had been towed onto the road, navigator Carlo Cassina was able to drive it back to service.

Rally statistics - Leg 1:
Starters: 85 crews (65 Group A and 20 Group N) started this morning.
Retirements: Dale (GB), and 10 other drivers.
Today - Friday 1 November: The second part of Leg 1 started from Cardiff at 05h15 and covered 622.54km, including 132.58km on six special stages.
Tomorrow - Saturday 2 November: Leg 2 starts from Cardiff at 06h00 and covers 508.39km, including 117.04km on six special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Cardiff at 20h30.
Weather forecast: More cloudy with heavy showers.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:
SS1 Cardiff Super special 1 (2.45kms)#:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 2m 07.7
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 2m 08.3
3. C. McRae (GB) Ford 2m 08.8

# This stage took place yesterday evening.
SS2 Brechfa 1 (23.12kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 13m 24.2
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 13m 24.7
3. Sainz (E) Ford 13m 36.2
Leaders after SS2:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 15m 33.5
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 15m 35.5
3. Martin (EE) Ford 15m 44.7
SS3 Trawscoed 1 (27.97kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 16m 36.5
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 16m 50.3
3. Martin (EE) Ford 16m 54.8
Leaders after SS3:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 32m 10.0
2. Martin (EE) Subaru 32m 39.5
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 32m 40.3
SS4 Brechfa 2 (23.12kms):
Stage cancelled due to spectator congestion.
SS5 Trawscoed 2 (27.97kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 16m 52.6
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 17m 00.8
3. C. McRae (GB) Ford 17m 02.4
Leaders after SS5:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 49m 02.6
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 49m 41.1
3. Martin (EE) Ford 49m 43.1
SS6 Rheola 1 (27.95kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 15m 55.5
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 16m 01.3
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 16m 06.6
Leaders after SS6:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 04m 58.8
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 05m 47.7
3. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 05m 49.9
SS7 Cardiff Super special 2 (2.45kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 2m 07.2
2. Martin (EE) Ford 2m 07.7
3. Sainz (E) Ford 2m 08.4

Leaders after SS7:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 07m 06.6
2. Solberg (N) Subaru +48.3
3. Martin (EE) Ford +51.0
4. Sainz (E) Ford +1m 04.9
5. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +1m 44.9
6. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +1m 48.6
7. C.McRae (GB) Ford +1m 59.5
8. Burns (GB) Peugeot +2m 01.4
9. Loeb (F) Citroen +2m 13.8
10. Loix (BEL) Hyundai +2m 51.3