Citroen team leader, Sebastien Loeb leads the Rally New Zealand following leg 1 today [Friday], the Frenchman establishing a 23.1 second advantage over Marcus Gronholm.

Loeb sneaked in front after SS4, demoting earlier leader Petter Solberg down to third, as the Norwegian was also 'passed' by Marcus Gronholm. However at that stage, and heading into the first service, they were separated by a whisker, with just 0.8 seconds between the three of them.

After that though, Loeb began to pull ahead, and three successive stage wins - in SS5, SS6 and SS7 - saw him build his 20 odd second lead, something that now puts him in a good position to match his Monte Carlo triumph back in January.

"This afternoon it was a very good tyre choice and I was pushing very hard and the car was perfect," he explained. "Now we have a good lead. The second pass of the stages were very clean and for the moment everything is going well, but it's a very difficult rally and very fast in places. You're always on the limit."

It's still early days though, and Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm will not give up the fight, just yet. The Finn though blamed his tyre choice for his lack of pace over the second loop.

"Second place is OK but we took the wrong tyre [this afternoon]," said the Finn. "I think all the Pirelli people did. We lost quite a lot, maybe too much. The problem is I don't know the Pirelli tyres. Tomorrow it all depends on the weather."

Petter Solberg meanwhile endured a less promising afternoon, and after having been right up there on the pace through the first four tests, even winning SS1, largely thanks to the overnight rain, which lessened the 'sweeper effect', the Norwegian lost ground over the second loop. Mainly due to a combination of the wrong tyre choice, sweeping the road, and the fact the stages had dried out.

As a consequence, Francois Duval nipped in front on the final test to take the last of the provisional podium positions, leaving Solberg fourth.

"I am really pleased to be third this evening on a rally that requires so much experience, especially since it is still possible to fine-tune the set-up of my Xsara," said the Belgian. "I'm not far behind Marcus but that won't change my approach. I will keep to the same pace tomorrow without worrying about my stage times."

Chris Atkinson lies fifth in the second works Subaru, the Aussie once again impressing, and just for good measure he won SS3 - the first of his WRC career, and then did the same again in SS8, just to show it wasn't a fluke. Furthermore while admittedly he benefited from running lower down the order, there is no getting around the fact, this guy is a star of the future.

"We've had a good day today and of course it's encouraging to have collected a couple of stage wins too," he noted. "The road position worked out well for us and after a cautious start I'm feeling much more confident on the gravel. I think we can continue at this pace, and keep on learning."

Toni Gardemeister was sixth for Ford, the only driver nominated to score manufacturer points for the M-Sport squad, after Roman Kresta crashed during the shakedown yesterday - badly damaging his Focus and ruling himself out of the event. The Finn was not happy this morning, but after opting for different tyres this afternoon felt he had found the sweet spot.

"The grip was fantastic this afternoon. We made an excellent tyre choice and pushed hard. Everything felt better and we set some good times. My brake pedal felt a little soft on stage seven but it wasn't a major problem," he commented.

Markko Martin and Manfred Stohl rounded out the top eight, the latter the top privateer.

Mitsubishi and Skoda came in two-by-two in ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth. Harri Rovanpera headed them, and team-mate, Gigi Galli, who had alternator problems in SS6, which unfortunately for him dropped him from sixth on the leaderboard to tenth.

Armin Schwarz was in front of Skoda colleague Janne Tuohino, however that was only because the Finn landed a 50 second time penalty prior to SS1, when the team had to change his ECU.

In the Production Car WRC category, and 13th overall, Toshi Arai leads, some 8 seconds up on his nearest class rival, Marcus Ligato. The Japanese driver incidentally also heads the Group N class overall, 4.6 seconds in front of Dean Herridge.

Of the Brits, Mark Higgins is best placed - 23rd overall, and sixth in the PCWRC class, one place in front of Suzuki driver, Guy Wilks.

The bulk of the second leg tomorrow [Saturday] is located in the same area close to the Paparoa service park and is the longest of the rally. After leaving service at 09.00, competitors face two loops of three speed tests before returning to Auckland for two passes over the spectacular floodlit super special stage at Manukau. Two stages from the first loop are repeated in the second and the opening 21.35km Waipu Caves test is new to the rally. Drivers face 139.49km of competition before the final overnight halt in Auckland at 20.30.