Winner of the last round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Italy, Citroen's Sebastien Loeb continued where he left off in Corsica today.

The Frenchman ended the day with a 3.9-second advantage over Ford Focus RS WRC03 driver Francois Duval. Loeb was concerned about the close proximity of the Belgian - and the other Ford of Markko Martin.

Martin had led the event through stages two and three, but a time-consuming spin on the fourth test dropped him back down the order. Fastest times on the two remaining tests of the day elevated the Estonian back into fifth spot, 18.5 seconds behind the leader.

Marcus Gronholm was third at the end of the leg after a trouble-free run in his Peugeot, with Duval's team-mate Carlos Sainz fourth.

Today consisted of six stages - two loops of three - and at the end of the 97 kilometres of competitive action, just under half a minute separated the top seven crews. All of the stages ran in dry conditions, although the Vico - Pont du Liamone test was dirtier than most on the second run through.

The factory Citroen Xsara WRCs of Loeb and Sainz ran without mechanical trouble today, while Colin McRae suffered brake and transmission trouble and Philippe Bugalski struggled with a throttle problem for the first three stages.

Loeb and Sainz both made strong starts to the event, running at the sharp end of the field throughout leg one. Loeb admitted his car was oversteering too much through the morning loop, while Sainz's day was without any problems.

McRae was struggling to slow his Xsara WRC down on stages two and three this morning. The Scotsman was running a transmission set-up close to the one which his team-mate Loeb had used on the last round in Sanremo, but it didn't work for McRae in Corsica. McRae's Xsara was locking its brakes too easily throughout the day.

Loeb commented: "We made some adjustments to the differentials at the lunchtime service today, the car felt better in the afternoon. This is a big race, very close. It's been really hard work out there, the Ford's are so close, there's no room for a mistake."

Sainz added: "I am feeling fine and quite happy at the moment. The new stages we did today were good, there was the odd patch of gravel, but nothing serious at all. Our time wasn't so good on the fourth stage, I'm not sure why - but we have been at the maximum. The car has worked really well."

McRae continued: "It's a matter of getting the set-up right for me. On the downhill sections the car wasn't right this morning, it wasn't braking right. It was more transmission than brakes, though. The first stage was okay - but after that it wasn't so good. It's another one of those situations where you need to be off to the best start possible - we haven't made that and now we're trying to catch up again."

At Ford both Focus RS WRC03s ran without fault through the opening leg, as did the 2002 version of Mikko Hirvonen.

Martin admitted to a steady start through the opening couple of stages, but once he found himself on the more familiar, latter part of SS3 - a stage which has been used before - the Estonian felt more at home and pushed harder - opening up more of an advantage through. Martin led the event after the second stage and moved further ahead on the third. Unfortunately for him, however, a spin on the fourth test cost him 30 seconds. He ended the day with fastest times on stages five and six, recovering to fifth place, 18.5 seconds off the lead.

Duval set the fastest time on the fourth stage. The Belgian preferred the stages which were new for everybody this morning and certainly happier on the second run. His fastest time on SS4 was backed up by top three times on the remaining two stages, ensuring he ended the day in a strong second position.

Mikko Hirvonen's day was also without drama in last year's Focus RS WRC.

Martin said: "I wasn't so keen on the first two stages this morning, but the third was really good - more typical of the Corsica roads. In the spin this afternoon, the back of the car dropped down a bank; I took full throttle to get it out. We came up the bank and shot across the road into the bank on the other side of the road. I couldn't get reverse gear, the spectators had to push me out - I lost a lot of time."

Duval noted: "This morning was good on the stages which nobody had driven on, but then when we got to the part of stage three which had been used, it wasn't quite so good - the others pulled a little bit of time out of me. This afternoon was great, fastest times and second overall: I'm very happy tonight."

Hirvonen commented: "I was too cautious through the opening stage, but I think that's probably because I was missing the kilometres I should have had in Sanremo. I thought I might have been a little quicker on the second run, but okay the times are still close to people like Tommi Makinen, so it's not so bad."

Over at Peugeot meanwhile none of the 206 WRCs suffered any technical problems through the opening leg of the event, although Gilles Panizzi remains convinced there is something amiss with his car - the team have been unable to find anything.

Gronholm and Richard Burns spearheaded the Peugeot attack through the morning stages, with both drivers comfortable in their cars.

Last year's winner - Panizzi - was far from happy with the way his car ran for the first loop, complaining about the set-up of his Peugeot.

Just as he did on the last round of the series in Italy, Gronholm was quickest of the 206s through the opening day. The Finn was comfortably in the top three, but this time his team-mate Burns wasn't far behind. The Briton admitted he was feeling considerably more comfortable in the car than he had a fortnight ago. Burns ended the day in sixth spot.

Panizzi ended the day out side of the top ten and over one minute off the pace. The Frenchman was frustrated by his problems, particularly as he couldn't identify precisely what was wrong. The team changed the gearbox at lunchtime, but Panizzi said it was no better through the afternoon's loop of three stages.

Gronholm said: "I'm not sure why we are closer to Loeb than we were on the last round. We have a good set-up with the car, no problems. I'll keep on pushing and see what we can do."

Burns noted: "From shakedown yesterday I felt the car was right for me. I've got confidence in the car which means that I can push harder. Maybe there is a little bit too much oversteer with the car, but I can live with that. I haven't been taking big risks today, but at the same time there's not a lot more to come in terms of times."

Panizzi added: "This morning it was like the first loop of Sanremo all over again. My car didn't feel right, it was like a different car from the one I had in shakedown. I was absolutely sure that something was broken."

At Subaru Petter Solberg's car was finished at 05h00 this morning following the Norwegian's accident at shakedown yesterday. The gearbox in his Impreza WRC 2003 gave trouble on the first loop of stages, but that was the only mechanical problem on the car. Tommi Makinen's Subaru ran without fault throughout leg one.

Solberg was grateful to make the start of the first stage this morning following his crash yesterday. The Rally Australia winner admitted he was nervous ahead of the opening test, but with that out of the way he was able to settle back in to his usual driving style. The gearbox problem was stopping the car selecting ratios cleanly, but he overcame that trouble to bring the car home in eighth position at the end of the day.

Makinen's run through the morning loop wasn't helped by running dampers which were too soft on the rear of the Subaru. That aside it was a drama-free day for the four-times world champion.

Solberg said: "The mechanics have done such a fantastic job to get the car ready, it's amazing. Once I'd got that first stage out of the way, everything was better. You can't help thinking about a crash like the one I had yesterday. We hit the telegraph pole, but if that hadn't been there, it was a big drop down. The car has been getting better and better throughout the day today."

Makinen added: "The car didn't feel so good this morning, but on the last stages it was good - the team changed some suspension parts which helped the handling. There was a lot of sand and gravel around in the second run of the stages which made it more difficult to drive. We have been pushing hard, but trying to save the tyres - which have been working well."

Skoda's Didier Auriol's Fabia WRC suffered an electrical problem at the start of the first stage this morning and retired. Toni Gardemeister's car ran reliably throughout leg one.

Auriol's problems began at the control ahead of the event's opening test. His Fabia stalled and refused to fire up. The Frenchman, who has won the Tour de Corse six times before, then tried to bump start the car, but damaged first and second gears. Eventually he ran out of time and was forced to retire.

Gardemeister was happy to get some asphalt mileage under his belt after his early exit from the last round in Sanremo. The Finn was running the suspension considerably softer than he had in Italy and subsequently had more confidence in the Skoda.

Auriol said: "On the way to the first stage, I noticed some water inside the car. I don't know where it came from, but it seems it got into the car's electrics and caused a problem when we came to re-start it. It's very disappointing to retire from any rally in this way."

Gardemeister added: "With the car like this I can drive so much faster. The suspension and geometry is much better. Now we are about one second per kilometre off the times of the fastest crews - and some of that is coming from the engine, which still needs some more power. The changes to the engine for this rally have made the power delivery smoother and made the car even more easy to drive."

Of the other entries Daniel Sola's day has run largely to plan among the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship contenders. The Mitsubishi Lancer E7 driver arrived back in Ajaccio with a two-minute lead over his nearest contender: Niall McShea, who is using a slightly older Lancer E6.

Martin Rowe's PCWRC title aspirations remain intact, he holds sixth place, with Toshi Arai unable to get into lead - the Japanese driver is fourth.

Top non-factory driver is Frenchman Alexandre Bengue. He holds ninth overall in his private Peugeot 206 WRC, after scoring a fourth time in SS5.

Rally statistics:

Starters: 62 crews (30 Group A and 32 Group N) started this morning.

Top retirements: Auriol (F), Ferreiros (PE), De Dominicis (I).

Today - Friday 17 October: Leg 1 started from Ajaccio at 09h05 and covered 283.03km, including 95.30km on six stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 18 October: Leg 2 starts from Ajaccio at 07h15 and covers 447.80km, including 190.00km on six stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Ajaccio at 19h28.

Weather forecast: Showers expected overnight, with changeable conditions tomorrow.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:

SS1 Cargese-Paomia 1 (14.64kms):
1. Sainz (E) Citroen 9m 49.6
2. Burns (GB) Peugeot 9m 50.5
3. Martin (EE) Ford 9m 51.2

SS2 Vico-Pont du Liamone 1 (15.49kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 10m 04.6
2. Martin (EE) Ford 10m 05.4
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 10m 06.2

Leaders after SS2:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 19m 56.6
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 19m 56.7
3. Loeb (F) Citroen 19m 56.9

SS3 Golfe de la Liscia-Sarrola Carcopino 1 (17.52kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 10m 43.6
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 10m 46.7
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 10m 48.6

Leaders after SS3:
1. Martin (EE) Ford 30m 40.2
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 30m 43.6
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 30m 45.3

SS4 Cargese-Paomia 2 (14.64kms):
1. Duval (B) Ford 9m 45.3
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 9m 48.9
3. Loeb (F) Citroen 9m 49.6

Leaders after SS4:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 40m 33.2
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 40m 36.1
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 40m 37.5

SS5 Vico-Pont du Liamone 2 (15.49kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 10m 03.6
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 10m 06.2
3. Duval (B) Ford 10m 06.6

Leaders after SS5:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 50m 39.4
2. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 50m 44.4
3. Duval (B) Ford 50m 44.9

SS6 Golfe de la Liscia-Sarrola Carcopino 2 (17.52kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 10m 43.2
2. Duval (B) Ford 10m 43.7
3. Loeb (F) Citroen 10m 45.3

Leaders after SS6 / Leg 1:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 01m 24.7
2. Duval (B) Ford +3.9
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot +5.3
4. Sainz (E) Citroen +10.2
5. Martin (EE) Ford +18.5
6. Burns (GB) Peugeot +19.5
7. McRae (GB) Citroen +29.4
8. Solberg (N) Subaru +43.8
9. Bengue (F) Peugeot +1m 00.7
10. Bugalski (F) Citroen +1m 05.7