Reigning world champion Marcus Gronholm started the defence of his driver's title in fine style on today's opening leg of Rallye Monte Carlo, round one of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Gronholm and his co-driver Timo Rautiainen were never headed throughout the opening loop of six stages in the mountains around Gap, north of the rally's Monaco base.

Gronholm admitted he felt more at home running studded tyres on the snow and ice, which littered the morning's tests, than using slick tyres in the afternoon.

Citroen's Sebastien Loeb was clearly at home on the drier asphalt, blasting his way up the leaderboard to end the day in second place, 20.6 seconds off the lead. Loeb was fastest on stage five and joint fastest with his team-mate Colin McRae on the sixth. McRae was third on his debut in the Xsara WRC, having held second earlier in the leg.

The opening day of this year's Rallye Monte Carlo went badly for the Subaru team, when both cars retired on stage five. Petter Solberg had shown well early on, holding second at lunchtime.

The three official Peugeot 206 WRCs ran without problems, although Gronholm did have a rear puncture on SS5. He soon put aside his dislike for the stages though to lead the rally from the start. Gronholm edged his way clear on the opening test, but then stunned his rivals with an amazing time through the second stage, beating everybody by 29.4 seconds.

Gronholm dropped time to Loeb through the afternoon, but continued to lead after the two longest stages of the rally: the 47.27km Plan de Vitrolles-Faye stage, despite hitting a bridge and puncturing a rear wheel on SS5.

Richard Burns was fourth overnight, not having felt entirely at home in the car through the morning loop of stages. He was happier in the long stages, which contained a good deal less snow and ice, than the first four tests.

Gilles Panizzi had received a one-minute penalty before the start of the rally, for failing to have the GPS system working properly on the recce. The Frenchman struggled to get to grips with the slippery conditions. He dropped time throughout the day and felt the car was set-up wrong for the stages. He ended day one in 14th place.

''I thought the damage on the rear wheel was worse than it was,'' commented Gronholm. ''The car was jumping around quite a lot. I am reasonably happy with the position. Maybe it won't be great running 15th on the road tomorrow, but then the guy who is second will be running 14th, so it's not so bad.''

''It's really hard to judge the speed on these stages,'' noted Burns, ''it's so easy to go too hard and go off the road. My plan was to be in the top six tonight, so I'm happy to be where I am right now.''

Gilles Panizzi continued: ''I have no feeling with the car, it's not giving me any feedback at all. I am not happy.''

At Citroen all three Xsara WRCs ran without fault throughout the opening leg of the event. McRae led the initial charge for the French team, but he was passed by team-mate Loeb on the fourth stage. Loeb's fastest time on the following test cemented his second place behind Gronholm and drew admiration from both McRae and Carlos Sainz.

Despite his time in the first run at the Plan de Vitrolles-Faye test, Loeb felt he could have gone even faster. It was the first time he'd ever driven the stage. He spun on the second run, dropping ten seconds while he turned the car around. McRae admitted there was little he could have done to defend his place from Loeb. The Scot had dropped time with a half spin on the fourth stage, which he estimated had cost him 20 seconds.

Sainz spun twice in SS3 and then went off the road for ten seconds in the fifth stage. All three Citroens were in the top five, with Loeb second, McRae third and Sainz fifth.

''I was surprised at my time in SS5,'' said Loeb. ''I hadn't driven at all well through there, it was so hard with the mud and then ice and then dry asphalt. I got to the end of the stage and didn't think it was such a good time.''

Team-mate McRae added: ''The car feels quite nervous over the bumps and these stages are quite bumpy. I lost a lot of time with the spin because I couldn't get the car into reverse gear. It's a bit disappointing after things had gone well this morning.''

Sainz commented: ''After going off the road and onto the grass, I feel like I've been doing Paris-Dakar today. My tyre choice was wrong for the final stage, I was on harder tyres than Colin and Sebastien.''

The Ford Focus RS WRC of Markko Martin suffered a minor brake problem on stages four and five today. Francois Duval's car suffered suspension damage after he hit a tree on SS4. Mikko Hirvonen's car ran without fault.

The first day of Rallye Monte Carlo was a learning experience for all of the Ford drivers. Martin was fastest Focus in sixth place, despite spinning on the first and second run at the Selonnet stage. He was running on a half-studded tyre for the first time and wasn't sure how hard he could push on them. His progress through SS5 was slowed when he caught and passed Panizzi's Peugeot. The Estonian felt his Focus's engine was down on power on the final stage of the day.

Duval was caught out by a muddy left-hand corner, four kilometres from the end of SS4. He hit a tree and tore the right-rear wheel off his Focus, but made it to service on time. Despite the best efforts of the Ford mechanics the car was not straight for SS5, but he still made it to the end of the day tenth overall.

Hirvonen preferred the snow and ice of the morning to the drier stages in the afternoon. He was 13th on his Monte debut.

''Spinning on this rally is nothing new,'' said Martin. ''I'm just trying to get as much experience as possible. It was quite interesting when we came to try and pass Panizzi, we went off the road in fifth gear to get by. The car has been perfect today.''

Duval noted: ''Hitting the tree in stage four hasn't done my confidence any good at all. Despite losing the wheel, we didn't drop too much time though. The geometry wasn't right for SS5 and we had a few near misses on the icy patches.''

Hirvonen added: ''It's great fun. Obviously coming from Finland I like the snow, it's a shame there's not more of it.''

Both Hyundais have suffered from a lack of pre-rally testing and both suffered early brake trouble. Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix said the suspension was wrong on their cars. The team softened the anti-roll bars on both cars at lunchtime.

Schwarz was the fastest of the two Accents over the first day, ending leg one in eighth place. The German spun on the second test, but was happier on the second loop of stages, when the road was generally dirtier. He also went off the road on a sixth-gear stretch of stage five.

Loix's feelings on the car and conditions mirrored those of his team-mate. The Belgian was 12th overnight, and said he'd been forced to use the handbrake at times to get the car to turn in.

Schwarz said: ''Coming to this rally with the car set-up for Sanremo Rally is not very good. It is too bumpy for the suspension, the car is being thrown all over the place. The brakes were dragging this morning, but changing the callipers sorted that problem out.''

Loix noted: ''It hasn't been much fun today. I really couldn't get the car turned in at all, which doesn't give you much confidence. The team has fitted new shock absorbers and I'm not sure if they're working better or not. All I can do is tell them team what I am feeling, I'll do that and see what we do tomorrow.''

At Skoda Didier Auriol's Octavia WRC ran without trouble until SS5 when he felt there was a problem with the throttle response. Toni Gardemeister retired on SS2 with an engine problem. The car had lapsed onto three cylinders towards the end of the first stage.

Auriol's return to the FIA World Rally Championship was greeted with a largely trouble-free day in his Octavia WRC. The Frenchman struggled running further down on the road through the morning, with crews ahead cutting the corners and dragging mud and stones out in to the road. Auriol ended leg one in 11th overall.

''It would have been very easy to go off the road this morning,'' said Auriol. ''On some stages it looked like there was dry asphalt, but then you go for the brake and find ice. I'm not sure what was causing the problem with the throttle later in the day; I looked down at one point and thought that maybe I had the handbrake on.''

Team boss Pavel Janeba added: ''It is very disappointing to lose Toni so early. Now we have to have a look at the engine and see what caused the problem.''

Subaru meanwhile had a disastrous day, both Tommi Makinen and Petter Solberg went off the road on SS5 and retired.

Solberg ran as high as second overall this morning, despite coming close to tipping his Impreza WRC off the side of a bridge on the fourth stage. He also collected a front puncture on that test. Solberg's rally ended 22km after the start of SS5. He hit some standing water in the braking area and crashed into a bridge sustaining heavy frontal damage to his car.

Makinen had suffered brake trouble on SS3, after hitting a rock and splitting a brake pipe on the test. He drove out of SS3 using just the handbrake to slow the car, dropping more than a minute to his rivals. He and Kaj Lindstrom crimped the split pipe and topped the brake fluid up for SS4, driving the test with three brakes. The problem was sorted in service following, but the Finn went off the road eight kilometres after the start. The Impreza was undamaged, but beached and unable to continue.

''It's sad, but sometimes that's life,'' said Solberg. ''We were really happy with the improvements we'd made to the car, but for SS5 we took a tyre decision which had some risk attached. I turned right to cross a bridge, but there was no grip. I hit the wall and damaged the radiator which meant we had to stop.''

Tommi Makinen noted: ''It would have been nice to have made the fifth win in Monte Carlo, but it wasn't to be. The new car was perfect, but where I went off there was no chance for me to get back on the road.''

Of the other entries Daniel Carlsson did a fine job to lead the opening round of this year's FIA Junior World Rally Championship at the end of day one. The Suzuki driver's day hadn't been without incident. He suffered a puncture on the third test, hit a telegraph pole on the next stage and then caught and passed a Peugeot 206 WRC on the long stage.

Frenchman Bruce Tirabassi revelled in his switch to a Renault Clio for this year, holding second after SS6. He admitted he was driving carefully through the tricky opening leg, still uncertain of the handling of his new car. Volkswagen Polo driver Kosti Katajamaki was third in the category.

Among the privateer World Rally Car entries, Cedric Robert and Roman Kresta were giving some of the manufacturer drivers a run for their money. Robert was up to seventh overall. The French driver had enjoyed Friday's action, his only problem coming on the fourth stage, where he felt his tyres were losing some of their studs. Kresta was equally happy two places further back.

Rally statistics - Leg One:

Starters: 51 crews (all Group A) started this morning.

Retirements: Gardemeister (FIN), Makinen (FIN), Solberg (N) and four other drivers.

Today - Friday 24 January: Leg 1 started from Tallard Aerodrome at 07h00 and covered 708.88km, including 196.30km on six stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 25 January: Leg 2 starts from Monaco at 06h40 and covers 413.99km, including 114.52km on four stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Monaco at 16h50.

Weather forecast: Expected to remain cold and dry.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:

SS1 Prunieres-Embrun (28.36 km):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 18m 07.6
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 18m 11.8
3. McRae (GB) Citroen 18m 15.9

SS2 Selonnet-Breziers (22.52km):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 16m 00.3
2. McRae (GB) Citroen 16m 29.7
3. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 16m 31.7

Leaders after SS2:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 34m 07.9
2. McRae (GB) Citroen 34m 45.6
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 34m 48.8

SS3 Prunieres-Embrun 2 (28.36kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 17m 54.5
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 18m 01.1
3. McRae (GB) Citroen 18m 01.4

Leaders after SS3:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 52m 16.4
2. McRae (GB) Citroen 52m 47.0
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 52m 49.9

SS4 Selonnet-Breziers (22.52kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 15m 33.7
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 15m 46.6
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 15m 47.9

Leaders after SS4:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 07m 50.1
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 08m 36.5
3. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 08m 45.7

SS5 Plan de Vitrolles-Faye (47.27km):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 28m 54.9
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 29m 12.6
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 29m 13.2

Leaders after SS5:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 37m 03.3
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 37m 40.6
3. McRae (GB) Citroen 1h 38m 36.6

SS6 Plan de Vitrolles-Faye (47.27km):
1. McRae (GB) Citroen 30m 04.7
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 30m 04.7
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 30m 21.1
4. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 30m 21.4

Leaders after SS6 / Leg 1:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 07m 24.7
2. Loeb (F) Citroen +20.6
3. McRae (GB) Citroen + 1m 16.6
4. Burns (GB) Peugeot + 1m 53.9
5. Sainz (E) Citroen + 1m 55.7
6. Martin (EE) Ford + 2m 30.7