Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm leads Neste Rally Finland at the end of the opening day of competition today [Friday], the Finn inheriting the lead from team-mate Harri Rovanpera who was forced to retire after rolling in SS6.

Despite the disappointment of losing its earlier one-two-three, Peugeot drivers still hold first and second, with Sebastian Lindholm trailing Gronholm by 18.3 seconds.

"Today seemed to get better and better," said Gronholm. "Of course it is still a big battle with Sebastian so I cannot relax at all, and there are many areas where we can still improve. But the main thing is to be in the lead and fighting for victory.

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"I'm very happy for the team: our first and second places underline just how hard everyone has been working."

Third position is held by Ford's Markko Martin, who has been in a battle with nominated team-mate and local expert Janne Tuohino for most of the day.

Martin, competing for the first time since his huge accident in Argentina, inched ahead on the first super special this evening after Tuohino spun, the Estonian admitted though that he wasn't fully up to speed.

"I'm really surprised to be on the podium because today has been the toughest of my career. I'm still recovering after the accident and don't feel 100 per cent," he commented. "Because of that, I didn't feel confident in driving flat out but this is the kind of rally where I have to drive at maximum speed all the time. It was hard to concentrate but I've improved as the day has gone on and won the last stage. It's hard when your head wants to do one thing and your body can't keep up. I was shocked when I realised this morning how difficult it was to drive."

Mikko Hirvonen was fifth until going off on the super special and breaking the suspension.

He joins Subaru team-mate Petter Solberg on the sidelines, the Norwegian going off the road earlier this afternoon. The Norwegian was running third when he slid into a ditch on SS4, hitting a rock in the grass, which damaged the suspension too badly to continue.

"The accident itself didn't seem too bad," explained the Norwegian. "I lost my concentration just for one small moment and we went wide. The car didn't spin but we dropped off the road and into the ditch. As we were coming to a stop I was sure we would be back on the road in no time at all, it certainly wasn't a big accident, but then we hit that one rock in the grass and that was that."

Rovanpera was also disappointed to go out, the Finn spectacularly damaging his 307 in the process.

"I'm bitterly disappointed," he said, "this was my rally and everything seemed to be going so well. It was a very stupid thing: a bit too far to the right over the corner and the car went off the road. I had a very good feeling, and I know what might have been possible."

Carlos Sainz meanwhile in the lead Citroen Xsara, moved into fifth position this afternoon and Jani Paasonen rounds off the top six, the Finn piloting the works Skoda Fabia WRC for the first time.

"Everything is fantastic! I have had no problems with the car at all and I am very relaxed about the rally," said the 'guest' Skoda driver. "I can go a little bit faster if I want to as I am probably only driving at 98 per cent right now."

Next up is championship leader Sebastian Loeb, who struggled during this opening leg, he is followed by Francois Duval, Kristian Sohlberg and Daniel Carlsson, in eighth, ninth and tenth respectively.

In the Junior WRC Per-Gunnar Andersson heads a Suzuki one-two, 10.3 seconds up on team-mate Kosti Katajamaki, while Nicolas Bernardi is third for Renault.

In total 47 competitors completed the opening leg, 68 having started this morning. 14 remain in the JWRC category.

The second leg tomorrow [Saturday] can be regarded as the classic day of the 2004 season. Based on wide, flowing roads south-west of Jyvaskyla, it comprises 167.80km and includes some of rallying's greatest speed tests. It includes two passes over the awesome 33.24km Ouninpohja, a roller-coaster stretch of road full of blind crests and huge jumps that is viewed by many as the sport's greatest test of driving skill. It is also an incredibly long day. Competitors depart Jyv?skyl? at 05.48, returning for the overnight halt at 21.52.