Reigning world champion, Sebastien Loeb has come out fighting on the opening day of the Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo, the Citroen ace winning three out of the four tests to establish a comfortable 32.7 second lead.

The Frenchman, who has dominated the Monte Carlo event for the last three years, already looks good to take his third win in succession.

His only problem came on the penultimate stage, when he spun his Xsara on snow thrown onto the road by spectators.

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"Everything went well," he noted at the end of the day. "The only tiny incident was in SS3 when the engine stalled after a spin on snow thrown onto the road by spectators.

"On the day's final stage, I concentrated on managing my tyres, notably in the hairpins. Thanks to that, I was able to benefit from super tyres all the way to the flag which allowed me to finish the stage strongly."

Francois Duval meanwhile is second, following a strong display on his debut in the sister Xsara - he also spun at the same place at Loeb. The Belgian reckoned he couldn't have wished for more...

"I wasn't necessarily expecting to figure so well so soon in this rally," he commented.

"We didn't know how fast our rivals were going to be and I also stalled after spinning at the very same place as Seb - for the same reason. My brakes went off slightly too in SS3, but that was quickly resolved and I was able to tackle SS4 without any problems."

Next up is Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm, the only driver who managed to interrupt Loeb's string of fastest times.

"I started off the first stage carefully this morning, which was tricky with about one kilometre of ice after the Col de la Sinne. On the second stage, which was almost entirely dry, I was able to push and I'm delighted to have set the fastest time. On the following stage, which was repeated as SS4, we were quite careful. There is no point in pushing too hard at this early stage," he said.

Petter Solberg and Toni Gardemeister complete the top five, the former having struggled with fading brakes throughout the day, while the latter tried to get up to speed for his new team as quickly as possible.

Solberg believes that a podium is still possible: "Fourth overall is good but obviously we've had a pretty tough day out there. The brakes gave us some problems, especially early on, and although the situation improved at the end of the day we lost quite a bit of time. I've always found Monte Carlo a hard event, and so far this one's been no exception, but a podium finish is still very much possible."

Markko Martin, another driver to switch teams this season, like Gardemeister, rounded off the top six. The Estonian admitted that he needs more time to get use to the 307.

Mitsubishi's Gilles Panizzi suffered gear selection problems for most of the day but lies eighth, just behind the privately-entered 206 WRC of former world champion Didier Auriol. Panizzi said that the new Mitsubishi is of no comparison to last year's model despite a few issues.

"Generally I have to say I am happy. It's not possible to compare the car this year with the one I drove last year," he stated. "It is completely different and I think we are now at a very good level; we just have to sort a few small problems. We have had some trouble with the semi-automatic gear-shift today and I've had to switch to the manual system at times. The problem with the handbrake was frustrating in the last stage; half-way through it went and there was a sequence of maybe 20 or 30 hairpins where we obviously lost time. If I can get a clean run, I feel confident we can make some good times tomorrow."

Stephane Sarrazin and Roman Kresta lie just outside the points in ninth and tenth.

Skoda's Armin Schwarz and Alex Bengue both suffered daylong hydraulic problems which affected their cars' differentials and launch control systems. Bengue leads the Czech team's challenge in 12th, just behind Harri Rovanpera, the Finn competing on his first asphalt rally since October 2002.

In the Junior WRC category, Per-Gunnar Andersson leads for Suzuki, over a minute up on Kosti Katajamaki. Brit's Kris Meeke and Guy Wilks, lie third and fourth.

There were no major retirements today, although leg 1 is the shortest of the event - tomorrow in contrast is the longest. After leaving Monaco at 06.45 on Saturday, drivers face 128.48km of competition on roads in the Alpes-Maritimes. The opening test is the same as today's final two stages, but in the opposite direction. That is followed by two identical loops of two tests north-west of the Principality, including two passes in the reverse direction over the Toudon - St Antonin test used today. Competitors arrive back in Monaco at 20.01.