Ford's Markko Martin has taken the lead of the Uddeholm Swedish Rally today [Friday], the Estonian claiming his advantage after setting the fastest time in stage three.

His only woe of the day has been stalling at the start of the second stage, he now leads by 23.3 seconds.

"I took care early this morning and just needed a couple of stages to settle into the rally," he said, "The Focus has been reliable all day. The only problem was a driver one when I stalled the engine at the start of the second stage but we didn't lose much time.

Related Articles

"The two Granberget stages were really good fun, in fact the whole day has been enjoyable. This morning we were the second car through the stage and there were no lines or ruts from other cars so I was able to play with the car a little and choose exactly the line that I wanted. To be first with a lead of more than 20sec is better than I expected."

Rallye Monte-Carlo victor Sebastien Loeb is however pressuring Martin from second while Petter Solberg has climbed to third after losing time with a spin in the second stage.

"I'm very pleased," noted Loeb, "I had a good day today, better then last year - we have had no problems. I'm impressed by Markko Martins' driving though. It doesn't matter if it's snowing tomorrow."

Solberg added: "It's been an incredible day, much better that I expected. I've never done well here before so I'm very happy. We had no real problems today just the spin earlier, but that's just part of the game. Since then, it's been perfect.

"Out on the stages there's an incredible atmosphere - I've never seen so many Norwegian flags. The conditions suit my driving and if it stays the same tomorrow, I'll do my best to beat Markko and Sebastien."

Carlos Sainz meanwhile holds fourth overnight ahead of Janne Tuohino, who has been nominated to score points for Ford in an M-Sport prepared Focus.

"We made no mistakes although maybe we were too sideways in places on the second stage this morning," commented Tuohino, "I drove at maximum speed but didn't take any risks. I call it safety speed and everything has gone normally. It's not a bad position to be the leading Finn on a winter rally. I will try to go a little faster tomorrow and brake a little less but I must be careful because the Focus has more potential than I know about."

Marcus Gronholm had taken the early lead in the Peugeot 307, but the Finn lost nearly a minute with power steering failure in stage three. He is sixth overnight with team-mate Freddy Loix tenth.

"It was really hard work [when the power steering went in SS3], but I knew I had to keep on pushing," said Gronholm. "I tried to limit the time loss as much as possible, but we still ended up losing a minute. It makes life difficult, but we're certainly not giving up. We still have some good chances to do well."

Loix added: "It's been a very frustrating day for me. In the morning, I lost time on the slower corners as I didn't have a good feeling with the back end of the car. We made some changes and I thought I was driving well, but when I saw the times I was disappointed. We need to think very carefully about why this is happening and try to find a solution."

Of the rest Mikko Hirvonen was seventh for Subaru, Daniel Carlsson eighth and Francois Duval ninth.

Duval who is not nominated for points Ford said: "It was good fun to drive on these roads and the conditions were better than we expected. The roads were about 70 per cent gravel on the first two stages but the lack of ice and snow hasn't altered the way I drive. We worked hard on perfecting our pace notes on the first pass through Granberget and that showed because they were fantastic on the second run. We were much quicker than our first attempt when all the other leading drivers were slower. I had a good feeling with the Focus but like everyone else I am concerned about what the rain will do to the roads we use tomorrow."

It was a troubled day for Mitsubishi duo Gilles Panizzi and Kristian Sohlberg.

Sohlberg spun twice on the first stage and went off into a snowbank on the second, losing four minutes in total. He spun again on the penultimate test and dropped a further minute, ending the day in 35th.

"Five kilometres before the finish of the second stage I started to brake and the wheels just locked up," he explained, "We went off the road and got stuck in a snow bank. All in all it has been a tough day and it taught me a lot."

Gearbox troubles for Panizzi meanwhile forced the team to fit a replacement after the second stage but that also broke and the original was put back in after the next test. However, he stopped with more transmission problems 2km from the end of the penultimate stage and was the only major retirement.

"We had a problem this morning with fifth gear, so the team changed the gearbox after the second stage. Then we had a problem with fourth in the second 'box and we put the original one back in the car. But then two kilometres before the end of the fourth stage we had more problems, had to stop and then the car wouldn't re-start," said the Frenchman, "Our aim was always to get to the finish so we can learn more information about the car, so from that point of view it is a shame."

Away from the manufacturer entries, Jani Paasonen heads the Production Car World Rally Championship [PCWRC] category, he is 17th overall, while Alister McRae is second in class, 44.2 seconds down, and Toshihiro Arai completes the top three.

In total 70 cars started today's leg, eight retiring during the course of the five special stages.

Leg two starts tomorrow [Saturday] at 0530hrs when crews leave Karlstad parc ferm? and travel 85km north to Hagfors for the first service of the day. The longest of the event, Leg two includes a further eight stages and 151.94 competitive kilometres. Based around the single service in Hagfors, Leg two includes a second visit to the Hagfors Super Special Stage. The first test starts at 0746hrs [all times local].