Just as he did on the opening round in Monte Carlo two weeks ago, reigning world champion Marcus Gronholm leads the Uddeholm Swedish Rally at the end of the first day.

As the snow started to fall on the second stage, it became clear that Monte Carlo-winner Sebastien Loeb would struggle to maintain the pace which carried him to fastest time on the opening test this morning.

Sure enough, Loeb slipped backed down the leaderboard while Gronholm and his Peugeot colleagues Harri Rovanpera and Richard Burns hit the front on this second round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

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Gronholm acknowledged that running first on the road was a big disadvantage, but maintained he hadn't been taking any risks to place his 206 WRC at the top of the pile at the end of the leg.

The driver spoiling the Peugeot party for most of the day was Tommi Makinen. The Finn eased his Subaru Impreza WRC2003 into second place, despite a broken mousse insert on one of his tyres on the third stage of the day.

There was more reason to celebrate for Gronholm, as his protege Juuso Pykalisto was running as top privateer in his Peugeot 206 WRC, fifth overall.

Burns' 206 required a new gearbox at the lunchtime service halt after the centre differential started to give trouble in SS3. The other two official Peugeots ran without fault.

Gronholm moved into the lead of the event on SS2 and then built up an even bigger cushion on the ensuing stages. Gronholm felt his tyres were starting to go off for the final 15km of the third stage, but that was about the Finn's only gripe on the opening day.

Burns suffered problems with the centre diff on the longest stage of the day. The transmission was locking all four wheels when he pulled the handbrake and was then causing the handbrake to stick on. That problem aside, the Englishman was happy with his day's work, ending the leg third overall.

Rovanpera stalled his Peugeot just before the finish of the third stage and admitted he was pushing harder through the afternoon.

''I couldn't find the rhythm in the first stage this morning,'' noted Gronholm, ''but after that everything has been fine. I wouldn't say I was pushing harder in any of the stages, just sensible.''

Burns added: ''I wasn't sure what was wrong with the car in SS3. It felt like it was pushing on too much and giving me lost of understeer, so I was fiddling with the anti-lag-system towards the end of the stage.''

Rovanpera, who is fourth overall, continued: ''It's been quite a long time since my last rally, so it took a little while to get into the groove. The stall cost me about five seconds, but it felt a lot longer. I need to attack more to get closer to Marcus.''

At Subaru Petter Solberg's Impreza required a different mapping for the centre differential mid-way through the opening leg, while Makinen's car has run without mechanical trouble.

Makinen was the faster of the two Impreza drivers for the most part of the day, despite the four-times world champion feeling his pace notes were too slow for the ultra-fast Swedish stages. He admitted he'd braked too early for many of the early corners. A puncture and stall cost him time through the long stage.

Solberg described his car as nervous through the opening brace of stages, but he thought that was down to his decision to run a narrow rim in order to gain more traction. When he switched to wider rims and the third stage was just as bad he knew the problem was more serious. With that problem solved, the Norwegian's times tumbled through the afternoon. He ended the leg eighth overall.

Solberg explained: ''When changing the width of the rim didn't make any difference for me, I knew it was the centre diff. I couldn't get any feeling when I was braking. This morning I was just surviving, I went off the road four times.''

Makinen added: ''I didn't hit anything to get the left-rear puncture, I just felt the vibration start; it was really bad and we still had more than half of the stage to do like this. Not getting the speed of my notes right is annoying, but things are much faster than last year.''

Toni Gardemeister's Skoda Octavia suffered an electrical problem on the way out of Karlstad this morning. The car cut out four times on the road section. Gardemeister fixed the fault and was untroubled through SS1 and 2.

Gardemeister was consistently the quickest Octavia through the opening day despite his rather unsettling start. The Finn admitted there was nothing left to come out of the Skoda as he pushed as hard as he dared through the fast stages which are among his favourites in the championship. He finished the day sixth overall.

With only limited testing time ahead of the event, Didier Auriol wasn't comfortable in the sister car. He then went off the road on the third stage and finished up 22nd at the end of day one.

Auriol noted: ''I haven't got that much confidence. The car felt okay to start with this morning, but then on the long stage we had quite a bad vibration - and then we went off. It cost about 30 seconds.''

Gardemeister added: ''It was pretty hectic this morning. There was some wire had come lose in the back, it took ages for me to find it. Then we got to the control with only 20 seconds to spare. It was a real rush to get our helmets on. The first part of the stage was a bit crazy. I'm loving these stages, it's fantastic to be going so fast and leaning on the snow banks.''

The Ford Focus RS WRCs of Markko Martin and Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile ran reliably. Francois Duval though retired on SS5 with broken suspension.

Martin leads the Ford charge with his younger team mate Hirvonen not far behind. Martin and Hirvonen have enjoyed clean runs through the opening leg, although Martin felt a snow tyre might have helped him in SS3. Duval hit a snow bank on the second stage and then retired three stages later with damaged suspension. As his car blocked the road for following competitors, the Stewards decided to cancel the stage.

Martin, who is seventh overall, said: ''I have been trying to find a way to get more traction out of the car. The team has made some adjustments throughout the day and it's getting better, but really there are no massive changes which we can make to the car.''

Hirvonen added: ''This is my first time in Sweden, so I'm concentrating on learning the roads. I didn't get much chance to test the car, but now I have three days to test it. It's a fantastic car to drive.''

All three Hyundai Accent WRCs ran without any problems. Both Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix complained of a lack of power through today's fast stages, but neither had any significant problems. Loix felt his car was oversteering too much, but a change of differential settings eased that problem, while Schwarz said his neat and tidy approach to the stages was helping bring his times down.

Jussi Valimaki was impressing the Hyundai team on his first official outing. Despite his inexperience at the wheel of the Accent he was setting competitive times and beating Schwarz.

Schwarz said: ''It's the same problem with the car, we need more power low down. In some corners we should be in fourth gear, but we are having to stay on the rev limiter in third just to make sure we've got the pull to get through the bend.''

Loix, who is the top Hyundai in joint ninth, added: ''The car is not great, but that's the trouble with not having any testing. It's not catastrophic, but things could be better. Our first test was at the shakedown, and our base settings were from Australia last year, this doesn't help. Taking that into consideration, I pleased with the times which we are settings. There are people behind me who have spent a lot of time testing.''

Valimaki continued: ''The first two stages were quite tricky. It took me a while to get my confidence, but it's coming now. Wherever I can see the ice coming through on the stages I am taking it easy, it's so easy to go off here.''

All three Citroen Xsara WRCs ran without any mechanical problems. Loeb made a great start to the day, leading the rally after the first stage. Unfortunately for the Frenchman it started to snow at the start of the second stage and running first on the road became increasingly hazardous. Loeb dropped one and a half minutes to the fastest time on the long Granberget stage.

Colin McRae meanwhile spun his Xsara three kilometres into the second stage, dropping 20 seconds. Running second on the road was only marginally better than first, although both McRae and Carlos Sainz had elected to use a snow - rather than ice - tyre which worked better in Granberget. Sainz hit a snow bank and spun 18km into the stage and was forced to make a three-point-turn to get the car facing in the right direction. All three Citroen's finished the leg outside the top ten, Sainz the highest in 12th, with McRae 13th and Loeb 18th.

McRae said: ''It was a late pace-note call which caused me to spin. I came into a fourth-gear corner way too quick. Then I had to spin the car around and get going. The snow in the air intake caused the engine to drop a bit of power. It's not a great start and I reckon a win is out of the question for me now.''

Loeb added: ''The first stage was great, but I was afraid the snow would be coming and it did. On the long stage I took an ice tyre, which was the wrong choice. Okay, there wasn't a lot of snow, but there was enough to slow me down - I was wiping it clear for everybody else.''

Sainz noted: ''The spin cost me quite a lot of time, but I am learning - still learning about the car in these conditions.''

Of the other entries Japan's Toshi Arai set a blistering pace in the FIA Production Cars WRC throughout leg one. The Subaru Impreza driver enjoyed a trouble-free opening day to head off the challenge of Swedish legend Stig Blomqvist (Impreza) and Janusz Kulig (Mitsubishi Lancer). Kulig dropped to seventh after a first-stage spin, but he fought back over the day's remaining five stages.

Among the non-works entries, Juuso Pykalisto (206 WRC) and Janne Tuohino (Focus RS WRC) managed to humble some of the official cars throughout the day, both of the young Finns ran without problems and held top ten placings with some ease.

Rally statistics - Leg One:

Starters: 75 crews (34 Group A and 41 Group N) started this morning.

Retirements: Duval (B) and 4 other drivers

Today - Friday 7 February: The opening leg started from Karlstad at 06h00 and covered 660.17km, including 125.79km on six stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 2 November: Leg 2 starts from Karlstad at 05h30 and covers 706.76km, including 140.37km on six stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Karlstad at 19h04.

Weather forecast: Temperatures expected to rise with the possibility of further snow showers.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:

SS1 Sagen 1 (14.17kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 7m 25.6
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 7m 26.2
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 7m 26.7

SS2 Rammen 1 (23.16kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 12m 05.5
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 12m 14.2
3. Sainz (E) Ford 12m 23.4

Leaders after SS2:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 19m 32.2
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 19m 40.4
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 19m 46.8

SS3 Granberget 1 (43.69kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 21m 43.9
2. Makinen (N) Subaru 21m 52.2
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 21m 59.8

Leaders after SS3:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 41m 16.1
2. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 41m 40.3
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 41m 41.4

SS4 Malta (11.25kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 5m 39.1
2. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 5m 41.2
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 5m 42.7

Leaders after SS4:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 46m 55.2
2. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 47m 21.5
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 47m 26.9

SS5 Brunnberg 1 (31.66kms):
Stage cancelled.

Leaders after SS5:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 46m 55.2
2. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 47m 21.5
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 47m 26.9

SS6 Hagfors Sprint 1 (1.86kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1m 58.0
2. Martin (EE) Ford 1m 58.4
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 1m 58.8

Leaders after SS6 / Leg 1:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 48m 54.1
2. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +27.0
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot +30.8
4. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +36.2
5. Pykalisto (FIN) Peugeot +59.3
6. Gardemeister (FIN) Skoda +1m 03.9
7. Martin (EE) Ford +1m 05.0
8. Solberg (N) Subaru +1m 09.4
9. Loix (B) Hyundai +1m 09.8
9. Tuohino (FIN) Ford +1m 09.8
11. Sohlberg (FIN) Mitsubishi +1m 15.1