Two stage wins was enough for Sebastien Loeb to take the lead of Rallye Catalunya after an opening day that saw a trio of drivers involved in a huge battle at the front of the field.

The newly crowned World Champion was quickest on both SS2 and SS5 to hold a slender lead of just two seconds over Markko Martin after the first 115.04km of competition.

"That was good," Loeb said. "A good, close fight. I was driving with total freedom. For tomorrow, I would prefer it to be dry - or at least, consistent throughout the day, so that we don't end up having to gamble. But no matter what, I will defend my position as hard as I can."

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Martin had a consistent day, staying near the top of the timesheets and setting the quickest time on the final stage of the day.

The Estonian will be looking for more from the car tomorrow as he attempts to overcome the small two second gap to Loeb.

"It has been a nine out of 10 day, and tomorrow I want it to be 10 out of 10," he said. "It's been an exciting three-way battle and it's a shame that Francois had to retire. The car has been really good but I think the last five per cent of the package has not been working quite as well as it did in Corsica. I will sit and think tonight, and try to work out what and why that is."

Francois Duval in the second Ford won the other three stages of the day, but he was forced to retire after SS6 with damage sustained when he hit a rock during the stage - as did Skoda driver Jan Kopecky who was making his first and only appearance of the season for the Czech team.

Marcus Gronholm is best of the rest behind the two leaders in third, some 30 seconds off the pace. The Peugeot man had an 'OK' morning, but set consistent times throughout the day to remain in contention for victory. An asphalt victory is the only thing currently missing from the double champions CV.

Carlos Sainz had suspension that was "too soft" but still ended the day inside the top four in his final event in front of the Spanish fans, with a 30 second advantage to Petter Solberg in fifth.

The outgoing WRC Champion admitted it had been a tough day and he is looking to improve tomorrow.

"It's certainly been a tough day," he said. "Mechanically things have been 100 per cent and the car has felt fine but, even though our tyre choices have been good, the stage conditions change so much from one part to the next that it's difficult to get into a consistent driving rhythm. I hope tomorrow we can get some more consistent conditions."

An impressive drive from Stephane Sarrazin sees him end the day inside the top six in his privateer Subaru ahead of Daniel Sola in the first of the Mitsubishi Lancers. Teammate Gilles Panizzi, winner of the event for the past two seasons, had been as high as third before a wrong tyre choice saw him drop down the order. He ended the day 13th.

Of the other works drivers, Mikko Hirvonen ended the day in the final points scoring place in his Subaru ahead of the Mitsubishi of Gigi Galli. The two Skodas of Toni Gardemeister and Armin Schwarz are tenth and twelfth, but Freddy Loix retired on SS3 after the alternator failed on his Peugeot.

Mirco Baldacci leads the way in the JWRC category, but it is Per-Gunnar Andersson who is currently primed to take the title in second place. Brit Guy Wilks, the current points leader ended the day in seventh.

The drivers tackle eight special stages tomorrow, the first of which gets underway at 0836hrs local time.