Peugeot #1 Marcus Gronholm has taken the early lead in Cyprus today [Friday], despite clutch problems at the end of stage four.
The Finn inherited the advantage from reigning World champion Petter Solberg in the same test.
Solberg - who led throughout the morning with two stage victories - ultimately dropped to eleventh when the Subaru engine went into 'safe' mode after the radiator filled with sand - prior to that he had been comfortably leading, by around five seconds, and seemingly poised to repeat his form from last year.
Gronholm was pleased with his position at the end of the leg, but cautious that there are still two long days to go.
"I'm very happy to be leading – this is something that I am always trying to do! Of course, the problem with the clutch was a big handicap on the last stages, especially because one of the starts was facing uphill. But on the whole the car has been excellent throughout the day, and has given me a lot of confidence in these very rough conditions," he said. "But there's a long way to go and we can take nothing for granted. Tomorrow we must keep pushing."
Solberg meanwhile who hit problems has dropped way out of contention. He cleaned the radiator at the end of the stage four with drinking water but the problem arose again on the next two stages. He had to stop briefly during the penultimate test and dropped more than nine minutes in total to lie eleventh.
"It was going really well,2 said the Norwegian, "Everything was going according to plan and then we had a small problem that cost us nine minutes. It's very upsetting to lose so much time over such a small thing, but that's the way it is and I just have to accept it. It's so disappointing after such a good feeling, nice control in the car and no worries. But, for tomorrow and Sunday I just have to do the best I can and see what we can do."
Gronholm's team-mate Harri Rovanpera holds second to give Peugeot a potential perfect result, while Sebastien Loeb has climbed to third after team-mate and former Cyprus Rally winner Carlos Sainz lost time with tyre woes in the final stage of the leg.
"It's been an excellent day for me," commented Rovanpera. "The conditions were difficult, but I have nothing in particular to complain about. The car has felt very strong and we have been able to push at a good pace without taking any stupid risks. There are so many big rocks here that you can have a problem very quickly. That's why it's best not to think too much about what will happen next - it could be anything!"
Ford's hopes of a top result lay in the hands of Markko Martin, the Estonian fourth overall and upholding team honours after Francois Duval was forced into retirement in the first stage after losing the front left wheel.
"There were no lines for us to follow this morning so it was quite difficult. I started with the aim of keeping out of trouble and I didn't consider then how much time I could lose," explained the Estonian. "Even though we dropped 40 seconds I thought it would have been worse. It's hard to regain lost time but we had only done three stages and the tests this afternoon used the same roads, so they were clean. We had a small differential problem this afternoon. But the second loop was much better for us than this morning, although the second pass through the long stage was incredibly rough. Overall it's been a good day. Tomorrow we will have a much better road position, which will ensure cleaner lines. The people starting behind us will have a small advantage only."
With Sainz dropping to fifth, the final top six position is held by Mikko Hirvonen in the lead Subaru.