Ford driver Markko Martin leads the ninth round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship - the Neste Rally Finland - after an electrifying battle with the Peugeot 206 of Marcus Gronholm.

Martin led after last night's superspecial but Gronholm grabbed the top spot on SS5 today. Yet Martin grabbed the lead back on the last proper stage of the day, before the spectator superspecial at Killeri. Gronholm won the final 2.06 kilometre test, but Martin, second, maintained a slender 2.6 seconds advantage over the reigning World Champion.

Peugeot driver Richard Burns is now third, ahead of another tight battle between Citroen's Colin McRae, Subaru driver Petter Solberg, and the other Citroen of Carlos Sainz.

Today's action was disputed over classic Rally Finland territory with intermittent rain that made driving conditions even more difficult.

At Ford Markko Martin's Focus RS WRC03 was reliable throughout the day. The sister car of Francois Duval also ran without trouble through leg one, as did the 2002 specification Focus of Mikko Hirvonen.

Martin was at the forefront of the battle for the lead all day and held a slender advantage over Gronholm after the final spectator superspecial. Duval was under instructions to finish the rally in order to learn the roads and had a cautious day which resulted in 15th position after the spectator superspecial.

Hirvonen felt he had an incorrect set-up this morning with oversteer and made some changes to improve the car. However, he thinks that further adjustments are still necessary.

Martin said: ''I've been driving over the limit on one or two occasions but flat-out is the only way I'm going to win this rally. There are thousands of Estonian fans here to support me but I'm concentrating so hard in the stages that I don't have time to see all their flags.''

Duval added: ''It's been a difficult day because some of the stages are new to me but on the second run through this afternoon I've improved my times so that's encouraging.''

Hirvonen commented: ''We lost some time this morning through oversteer, but it's been better since then and I'm really enjoying these jumps!"

The Peugeots of Marcus Gronholm and Richard Burns ran without mechanical problems today, but Harri Rovanpera lost a lot of time after breaking his suspension on some rocks in SS2 and subsequently hitting a tree.

Gronholm was involved in a day long-battle for the lead, but was forced to give best to Ford's Markko Martin at the end of the day. Burns started the day in seventh position but moved up to third after taking advantage of the rain, which he said minimised the disadvantage of running first on the road. Rovanpera ruled himself out of contention after his SS2 indiscretion.

''Considering our road position I'm quite happy with the way things have gone,'' said Burns. ''The rain definitely helped us today and we're still in touch with the battle for the lead.''

Gronholm commented: ''I wasn't very confident with my tyre choice in the middle loop of four stages. I was forced to miss the pre-event tyre test, so I was running on tyres I didn't really know for much of today. I always knew it would be a very close battle.''

Rovanpera added: ''On SS2 the suspension broke on some rocks which put us into a spin. I could fix it, but from then on the game was over. Now the rally is all about trying to set some fast times to show what we can do.''

The three Citroens of Sebastien Loeb, Colin McRae, and Carlos Sainz meanwhile ran without major mechanical problems.

McRae held fourth place from SS3 onwards, with a fast and consistent drive. An incorrect tyre choice on the middle loop of stages put him within the clutches of Subaru's Petter Solberg, but McRae fought back to claim fourth back on the final forest stage of the day.

Sainz also improved his pace after adjusting his roll bar settings to eliminate oversteer and ends the day sixth. Loeb spent much of the day getting to grips with the event which he does not have so much experience of. He currently lies in seventh.

''I was trying to push but it's difficult,'' explained Loeb, ''My team mates know this rally better than I do, so I'm aiming just to finish and score however many points I can.''

McRae noted: ''It's been a satisfactory start and the performance of the car has been good, as I expected. It's a pity we were on the wrong tyres during the middle loop of stages this afternoon, but these things happen.''

Sainz commented: ''It's not been a bad start. I have been changing some things on the car and it's getting better.''

At Subaru both Impreza WRC2003s have run reliably throughout the day. Petter Solberg hit a rock on SS5 which bent his car's front crossmember and anti-roll bar, forcing him to disconnect it for the following two stages.

Makinen's car had no mechanical problems although the Finn reported several bad vibrations from the anti-deflation mousse fitted to the tyres on several stages throughout the day. He also hit a rock eight kilometres into SS2 and lost a quarter of the wheel rim.

Solberg is embroiled in a three-way battle for fourth place together with McRae and Sainz, but has had an incident-free day apart from the bent roll bar. Makinen changed his damper settings for the middle group of four stages but later decided to revert to the original settings after failing to find a significant improvement. Solberg ended the superspecial in fifth place while Makinen held eighth position.

''It's going well,'' said Solberg, ''I think tomorrow we'll have a good fight with Colin and Carlos. For a lot of the day it's been full throttle - I couldn't get the pedal any closer to the floor.''

Makinen noted: ''I think we went the wrong way with some dampers earlier on and we've had some bad luck with tyre mousse vibration, but it's been a reliable day and there's a long way to go.''

All three Hyundai Accent WRC?s of Freddy Loix, Armin Schwarz and Jussi Valimaki were reliable throughout the day and had a steady run. Schwarz and Loix though felt that the car was lacking stability in fast corners.

Loix changed his suspension set-up after the opening group of stages and improved the car for the middle loop of stages. Schwarz had the same problems as his team mate and also found that his car's ride height was too low for the last group of stages which were a repeat of this morning's opening stages, causing his car to bottom out frequently. Jussi Valimaki had a good day and plans to attack tomorrow's stages which are more familiar to him.

''Now we are going to push to the edge because the suspension is much better and the car feels sharper. Today has been challenging,'' noted Loix, ''We made good progress and although the shocks were going soft at the very end we were expecting that and now we know how to deal with it.''

Schwarz commented: ''I am happy with the suspension because it's given me more feel and although we couldn't gain a lot on the last group of stages, I am sure we have a better set-up for tomorrow.''

Skoda's Didier Auriol did not start this morning as a result of an old shoulder injury. The remaining Fabia WRC of Toni Gardemeister stayed reliable throughout the day.

Gardemeister ended the day in 12th position, having had a consistent day. He set an eighth-fastest time on SS8 but was unlucky to be caught in the middle of a strong rain shower on SS7. The Finn experimented with suspension settings throughout the day and improved the car for the last loop of stages.

Gardemeister said: ''Generally I have been happy with the car today. When the roads were slippery it wasn't so easy to find traction because I didn't get my tyre choices absolutely correct but the balance of the car has been very good as usual.''

Of the other entries former World Champion Ari Vatanen has had an enjoyable day in his privateer Peugeot 206 WRC and has climbed to 19th overall overnight. ''I need to slow down now as I don't want to finish in the top three and ruin my chances of a factory drive next year!'' he joked. Marcus Gronholm's prot?g?, Juuso Pykalisto has ended the day 10th after a trouble-free opening day on his first rally in a 2003-specification Peugeot 206 WRC.

The FIA Junior World Rally Championship is led by Renault Clio driver Brice Tirabassi, ahead of Suzuki driver Ville-Pertti Teuronen.

Rally statistics:

Starters: 71 crews (56 Group A and 15 Group N) started the event yesterday.

Top retirements: Auriol.

Today - Friday 8 August: The second section of Leg 1 started from Jyvaskyla at 07h30 and covered 585.36km, including 138.30km on nine stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 9 August: Leg 2 starts from Jyvaskyla at 06h00 and covers 745.52km, including 167.92km on seven stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Jyvaskyla, Pavilijonki at 19h48.

Weather forecast: Partly cloudy but mainly dry.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:

SSS1 Killeri 1 (2.06kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 1m 18.2
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1m 19.0
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 1m 19.2

SS2 Jukojari 1 (22.31kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 10m 50.8
= Martin (EE) Ford 10m 50.8
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 10m 56.7

Leaders after SS2:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 12m 09.4
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 12m 09.8
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 12m 15.9

SS3 Kruununpera 1 (20.17kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 9m 12.4
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 16.1
3. McRae (GB) Citroen 9m 19.8

Leaders after SS3:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 21m 21.8
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 21m 25.9
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 21m 40.3

SS4 Valkola (8.42kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 4m 25.4
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 4m 26.1
3. McRae (GB) Citroen 4m 27.9

Leaders after SS4:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 25m 50.3
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 25m 51.3
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 26m 07.2

SS5 Lankamaa (23.47kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 11m 26.0
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 11m 26.7
3. Martin (EE) Ford 11m 29.7

Leaders after SS5:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 37m 17.3
2. Martin (EE) Ford 37m 20.0
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 37m 33.9

SS6 Laukaa (11.82kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 5m 46.1
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 5m 48.3
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 5m 50.8

Leaders after SS6:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 43m 05.6
2. Martin (EE) Ford 43m 06.1
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 43m 24.7

SS7 Ruuhimaki (7.57kms):
1. Burns (GB) Peugeot 4m 03.4
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 4m 06.2
3. Martin (EE) Ford 4m 08.1

Leaders after SS7:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 47m 11.8
2. Martin (EE) Ford 47m 14.2
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 47m 28.1

SS8 Jukojarvi 2 (22.31kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 10m 40.1
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 10m 41.7
= Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 10m 41.7
4. Solberg (N) Subaru 10m 44.8

Leaders after SS8:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 57m 53.5
2. Martin (EE) Ford 57m 54.3
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 58m 09.8

SS9 Kruununpera 9 (20.17kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 9m 03.0
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 06.5
3. McRae (GB) Citroen 9m 08.6

Leaders after SS9:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 06m 57.3
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 07m 00.0
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 1h 07m 21.0

SS10 Killeri 2 (2.06kms):
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1m 19.1
2. Martin (EE) Ford 1m 19.2
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 1m 19.4

Leaders after SS10:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 08m 16.5
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot +2.6
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot +24.2
4. McRae (GB) Citroen +49.3
5. Solberg (N) Subaru +50.2
6. Sainz (E) Citroen +56.7
7. Loeb (F) Citroen +1m 21.9
8. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +1m 39.5
9. Tuohino (FIN) Ford +1m 48.7
10. Pykalisto (FIN) Peugeot +1m 51.3