Citroen team leader, Sebastien Loeb appears to be in control of the Rally Italia Sardinia following day one today [Friday], the Frenchman having stamped his authority on proceedings, despite an early challenge from Marcus Gronholm.

Loeb ended the day with a more than comfortable margin over Petter Solberg, who is second some 30-seconds behind, after around 140 competitive kilometres, set out over two loops of three stages.

The reigning champion, despite a bit of a slow start - he was only ninth fastest through SS1, went on to win four of the five remaining tests, and was second through the other.

Related Articles

"It only took a couple of corners for me to realise that the suspension settings were a bit too soft [this morning on SS1] since the rear tended to float about too much," he explained. "Between SS1 and SS2, I adjusted the front and rear shock absorber settings by a number of clicks and immediately knew on SS2 that we had gone in the right direction, as revealed by our splits and fastest times over the last two stages of the first loop!"

Solberg meanwhile did well to remain in contention, especially as he was hampered by running first on the road. He slid off briefly on both the opening two stages but climbed back from sixth to second at the end of the day. The Norwegian will be hoping he take the fight to Loeb tomorrow, over the longest leg of the event.

"I'm very pleased to finish today in second place. Sebastien has done a good job and I've been working very hard out there, let me tell you," said 'Hollywood'. "First on the road here is a very tough place to be, it is so slippery and I had a couple of spins in the morning. Since then, we've had a few things to contend with like no brakes for some of SS4 and a very difficult road surface for our tyres, but that's how it is in rallying and we just have to deal with it."

The big surprise though was Subaru reject Mikko Hirvonen, the Finn enjoying a fantastic day, to round out the provisional top three in his privateer Focus. The fact he was ahead of Ford works driver, Toni Gardemeister, who lies fifth overall, and way ahead of Roman Kresta, who is down in eleventh, in the second Focus nominated to score manufacturer points, will no doubt have given team boss, Malcolm Wilson food for thought.

"The car is easy to drive, exactly how I wanted it. I gained an awful lot from my road position this morning," noted Hirvonen. "I had a few lucky escapes but I tried to drive neatly through the corners and then flat out everywhere else, even over all the rocks and the rough sections. I will try to keep the same pace tomorrow but I'm sure Toni will trying just as hard to catch me."

Harri Rovanpera was sandwiched between the Ford's Hirvonen and Gardemeister in fourth, after front punctures on the second and third stages, which somewhat hampered his charge.

"Our first day result is good and we've had no technical problems," stated Harri. "The feeling with the car is okay, but the roads are very bumpy and rough and generally it's much hotter than we expected. It's a very difficult rally and although we're pushing hard, it's not so easy."

Peugeot duo, Markko Martin and Marcus Gronholm, came in sixth and seventh. Gronholm had been leading early on, until he rolled in SS3, which dropped him down to 22nd overall. Despite extensive damage though, the Peugeot team was able to get him back out in the event without penalties and this afternoon he managed to haul himself back up into the points. Something that will no doubt be some consolation - although probably not much!

"It's not been an easy day for us, but without the roll in the morning I think I could have been in the lead," reckoned Gronholm. "I rolled the car because there was a little bit of asphalt road in the middle of the stage, and I did not have as much grip as I thought. In the afternoon it was more difficult, and I struggled quite a bit. But we have set two fastest times today which shows what the car is capable of."

Armin Schwarz is eighth, the last of the potential points' scorers, the German enjoying a solid day in his Skoda Fabia, while the privately ran Citroen Xsara's of Juuso Pykalisto and Manfred Stohl are ninth and tenth.

Of the remaining works drivers, Janne Tuohino is 15th and Stephane Sarrazin 18th, on his first ever gravel event.

Three of the factory drivers retired from the opening leg - namely: Francois Duval, Gigi Galli and Chris Atkinson, who all hit problems in SS5. Duval rolled, while running second overall, while Galli had suspension problems and Atkinson clobbered a rock, knocking off a wheel. All three of them hope to re-start tomorrow under the SupeRally regulations.

In the Junior WRC meanwhile Kosti Katajamaki is in a class of his own, having led from the start. He concluded the day 1 minute 45 seconds ahead of fellow Suzuki driver, Urmo Aava, while Kris Meeke is third in the Citroen C2, which is making its gravel debut this weekend in the WRC.

Leg two tomorrow [Saturday] starts at 0800hrs, when the first car will leave parc ferme for a 10-minute service. Crews will then contest five stages, two of which are repeated, and a total competitive distance of 144.01km. The Leg includes both the longest and shortest stages of the event. The longest is the repeated Tandalo test at 38.77km and the shortest, the Lovia Avra at 5.01km.