Marcus Gronholm made the perfect start to this year's Propecia Rally New Zealand, posting fastest time on seven of the opening day's nine stages around the Northland town of Paparoa.

The reigning world champion enjoyed a trouble-free start to the fourth round of the FIA World Rally Championship. His pace was such that second-placed man Markko Martin admitted that the Peugeot driver was in a ''different league'' in some stages.

Martin was delighted with his own performance in the all-new Ford Focus RS WRC 03, but there was just 5.5 seconds between himself and Petter Solberg's Subaru Impreza WRC 2003 in third place.

The day started with rain, drying out around lunchtime before the rain returned for the final loop. The drivers accepted it was a lottery whether they got through the nine tests north of Auckland in the dry.

All three of the Peugeot 206 WRCs ran without mechanical fault. Gronholm started and finished the day in the same way, setting fastest time. He has enjoyed a trouble-free run through the leg and now starts in a strong position for the second leg of the event.

Burns and Rovanpera occupy fourth and fifth place respectively, split by just 8.6 seconds. The Englishman admitted that his end of leg result could have been considerably worse if the weather had remained dry. Just as Burns was happy with the weather, Rovanpera had wanted the complete opposite, starting further down the order.

''This is what I had hoped for at the start of the rally, now we have to make sure that we can keep this position for the next two days,'' noted Gronholm. ''Today has been a full attack, it's gone well and the car has been good for us all day."

Team-mate Burns continued: ''This position is okay, we could have ended this leg at the wrong end of the top ten - we've been very lucky with the rain. I couldn't have gone any faster today.''

Rovanpera added: ''Today has been quite hard work, some times the rain has been really bad, but okay we're here. Now we have to have a big push and see what we can do tomorrow.''

At Ford Francois Duval's Focus RS WRC 03 required a new gearbox at the lunchtime service halt, but the hydraulic problem re-occurred on the final loop. Duval incurred a 20-second penalty for leaving service two minutes late while the transmission work was completed. He also suffered a misfire on stages four and five. The sister car of Martin ran without fault. The windscreen wipers broke on Mikko Hirvonen's 2002 specification Focus on the second stage.

Martin was quickest of the Fords on the opening leg, holding third overall. Martin's only problem had been running too much front brake bias through the first loop of three stages, which caused the brakes to overheat. That aside, the Estonian was happy with his progress.

Duval's gearbox problem didn't cost him time in SS3, but it did through the final loop of stages. Hirvonen spun on the fourth stage and admitted that he wasn't driving on the limit for most of the first leg.

Martin said: ''The car feels really fantastic. Holding a position like this and setting the times we are doing would not have been possible with last year's car. Everything that we found about the car has been translated into the test, this is a really big step forward.''

Duval noted: ''The team thought they had fixed the gearbox problem in service after SS3, but the problem reoccurred leaving service, so the 'box was changed after the next two stages. We had to use the manual gearshift, which means that we didn't have a handbrake [the manual shift uses the same lever as the handbrake] but that wasn't such a problem as there weren't too many tight corners. It was not good when the problem came back, the car was very hard to drive for the last couple of stages.''

Hirvonen added: ''The spin came in a tight corner, but the problem was that stalled twice trying to get going again. I'm in the middle of the road today, I need to get to the finish of the rally.''

Over at Subaru both Impreza WRC 2003s ran without trouble through the opening leg.

Solberg and Tommi Makinen held third and seventh place respectively at the end of the leg. Solberg was bemused by a brake problem at the start of the fourth stage, but promised that he was driving at no more than 90 per cent. Makinen was making changes to the rear suspension in an attempt to improve the car's traction, but felt the car wasn't working so well on the final loop.

Solberg said: ''I need points from this rally. On Sunday I will look at the positions again and decide whether or not to push harder. Right now I'm not taking any risks. The brake problem was a little concerning, for the first three kilometres of the stage I didn't have any brakes, the pedal went hard - then they came back, but I didn't have too much confidence for the rest of the stage.''

Makinen added: ''On these stages you really need the suspension to be working right, earlier this wasn't so good for us. At first service we did something which raised the back end of the car, but that was wrong so then we had to lower it again as there was no grip. The rest of the car is good, but this doesn't matter if you have not the traction.''

The Citroen Xsara WRCs of Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz were mechanically reliable, although all three cars suffered from a misting windscreen in the rain on the first loop. Colin McRae damaged the suspension on his car on the sixth stage and retired after the test.

Loeb was the leading Citroen driver at the end of the first leg, holding sixth place. Sainz was just over 20 seconds behind the Monte Carlo Rally winner in eighth position. Both drivers admitted that the weather had helped them more than expected over the opening leg. McRae's problem came when the car bottomed in a fourth-gear corner. The compression caused the car to jump across the road and into the bank, breaking part of the suspension on the front-right corner of the car.

''I have to be happy with the way today has gone for me,'' noted Loeb. ''To be doing the times like Carlos and then to end the day in front of him on my first time here is good. The car has been good, okay we have been making lots of small changes, but it's good.''

Sainz continued: ''I tried to make some changes to the suspension after stage five, but they didn't work on the last loop of stages, I'll be changing the car back tonight. Today has been quite a hard day, trying to predict what the weather will do for tyre choices.''

McRae added: ''It's at disappointing end to a disappointing day for us. We went well through two of the stages, but with the weather changing so much it's hard to know exactly where we were. The place where we retired wasn't bad, I would take the corner in the same way again. We run the cars so low here that something like this is always a risk, but it doesn't make retirement any easier.''

Hyundai's Armin Schwarz crashed on the first stage of the rally, but the Accent WRC of Freddy Loix ran without problem. Jussi Valimaki put his 2002 specification Accent off the road on SS7.

Schwarz crashed out of the rally after running wide on the first of a series of fast corners. His Accent WRC hit a rock and tore the front-right wheel off before rolling three times. Schwarz and his co-driver Manfred Heimer were uninjured in the accident.

Loix felt the revisions to the turbo charger on the Accent had helped the mid-range torque of the car, but on today's fast stages he admitted the car was lacking top speed. Valimaki was happy with his pace early in the day, holding 15th after SS6 before crashing out on the next test.

Schwarz said: ''The accident happened about 12 kilometres into the first stage. It was a very fast section with the speed up around 160 or 170kph. I went into an open right corner a little too quick, the car ran wide and forced us off line for the next left-hander we ran wide in that corner too, hit the rock and started to roll. We rolled three or four times. Very disappointing.''

Loix noted: ''The corners are fantastic in this car, but when we are coming on to the straights, the first ten metres out of the corner is good, but then we are lacking a little in the top speed. I think the car feels a bit slower in the top speed than before. I am talking with the engineers to see if we can sort this out.''

Valimaki commented: ''We didn't go off badly, the car just slipped over the edge of the road, but there were no spectators to get us back on.''

At Skoda both Octavia WRCs ran reliably today. Didier Auriol was quickest of the two Skodas through most of the day, despite the fact that he didn't contest this event last season. Toni Gardemeister's efforts were hampered by the windscreen wiper problem on the first loop of stages today and the wrong suspension set-up for the final loop.

Auriol said: ''Today has been okay, not great, but not bad. The second stage was quite difficult, very, very slippery with all of the rain, but apart from that there is nothing to talk about today. For me it is important to be faster than my team mate and I have done that today.''

Gardemeister added: ''I was expecting it to be wet on the stage four, so we took the softer tyre, but then it was completely dry, so the tyre didn't work very well. Both Didier and I are pushing as hard as we can today, but I just felt that the car was a bit soft for the last stages.''

Of the other entries Toshi Arai leads the FIA Production Cars World Rally Championship standings in his latest specification Subaru Impreza. Local driver 'Possum' Bourne had made the initial running, but retired on the middle loop of stages with engine problems on his similar car. Marcos Ligato is second, while Australian driver Cody Crocker leads Group N outright in his Impreza. Manfred Stohl is the leading non-works driver, holding ninth overall in his Peugeot 206 WRC, while Alister McRae ended the day 14th.

Rally statistics - Leg 1:

Starters: 80 crews (40 Group A and 40 Group N) started this morning.

Retirements: Schwarz (D), Valimaki (FIN), McRae (GB) and 14 other drivers.

Today - Friday 11 April: Leg 1 started from Auckland at 07h00 and covered 387.69km, including 139.10km on nine stages. The first car arrived in Paparoa at 17h00.

Tomorrow - Saturday 12 April: Leg 2 starts from Paparoa at 08h00 and covers 455.57km, including 150.43km on seven stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Auckland at 20h20.

Weather forecast: More changeable weather expected.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:

SS1 Batley 1 (19.82kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 10m 45.2
2. Martin (EE) Ford 10m 51.3
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 10m 54.4

SS2 Waipu Gorge 1 (11.24kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 6m 37.0
2. Martin (EE) Ford 6m 37.7
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 37.9

Leaders after SS2:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 17m 23.1
2. Martin (EE) Ford 17m 29.0
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 17m 34.6

SS3 Brooks 1 (16.03kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 46.3
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 9m 51.4
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 9m 52.9

Leaders after SS3:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 27m 09.4
2. Martin (EE) Ford 27m 22.8
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 27m 26.0

SS4 New Cassidy (21.64kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 12m 13.7
2. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 12m 15.2
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 12m 16.6

Leaders after SS4:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 39m 23.1
2. Martin (EE) Ford 39m 41.5
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 39m 42.6

SS5 Paparoa Station 1 (11.64kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 18.2
2. McRae (GB) Citroen 6m 19.7
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 6m 19.9

Leaders after SS5:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 45m 41.3
2. Martin (EE) Ford 46m 03.0
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 46m 03.7

SS6 Batley 2 (19.82kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 10m 33.0
2. Martin (EE) Ford 10m 35.9
3. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot 10m 37.5

Leaders after SS6:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 56m 14.3
2. Martin (EE) Ford 56m 38.9
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 56m 45.2

SS7 Waipu Gorge 2 (11.24kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 6m 34.9
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 36.6
3. Martin (EE) Ford 6m 37.1

Leaders after SS7:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 02m 50.9
2. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 03m 16.0
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 03m 24.0

SS8 Brooks 2 (16.03kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 22.9
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 9m 29.5
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 9m 30.8

Leaders after SS8:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 12m 13.8
2. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 12m 49.2
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 12m 54.8

SS9 Paparoa Station 2 (11.64kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 6m 11.7
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 6m 12.6
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 6m 14.3

Leaders after SS9:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 18m 25.5
2. Martin (EE) Ford +38.1
3. Solberg (N) Subaru +43.6
4. Burns (GB) Peugeot +55.0
5. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +1m 03.6
6. Loeb (F) Citroen +1m 26.2
7. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +1m 29.4
8. Sainz (E) Citroen +1m 47.2
9. Stohl (A) Peugeot +2m 01.0
10. Auriol (F) Skoda +2m 11.9