Reigning world champion, Sebastien Loeb survived the carnage in Cyprus today [Friday], to conclude the opening leg with a dominant lead.

The Frenchman will head back into the 'Safari' tomorrow - as the event has been likened to - with more than a two minute lead over his nearest challenger.

Despite running first on the road it didn't seem to affect Loeb much, and although Petter Solberg won the opening test, the Citroen ace went in front after winning SS2 and hasn't looked back since. Indeed he won all of the remaining tests and thanks to a trouble-free day only needs to get to the finish now to secure the win and of course another 10 points.

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"The stages are just as we left them last year," said Loeb at the end of the leg. "Today's longest test [SS1 and SS4] was the worst of all. Incredible! Even driving at a snail's pace it was an absolute bone-shaker. There's no gravel left. We're driving directly over rocks."

Surprisingly two privateer runners round out the provisional podium, with Manfred Stohl second, in his Xsara WRC, while Henning Solberg holds third, in an M-Sport run Focus.

"I had a minor problem with the gearshift paddle but the car's set-up was perfect and I made a good choice of tyres for this afternoon's loop. I couldn't really ask for better than second place," commented Stohl.

Further down the field Markko Martin is fourth and the lead second works driver. The Estonian recovering well, after a puncture on the opening test this morning, the longest of the event, cost him over a minute.

"Today has not been such a surprise to me," noted Martin. "As soon as I saw the conditions of the stages in the recce I knew it would be like this. I lost time on the first stage but I thought that if I stayed out of trouble I would get it back.

"During the afternoon I had no problems at all so I was able to get back up to fourth. I can't say that I have really enjoyed today, as everything here is a bit of a lottery. But if I continue to steer clear of problems then everything is possible. It's that sort of rally."

Antony Warmbold comes in fifth, while Francois Duval is sixth despite throttle problems in SS3.

Harri Rovanpera and Toni Gardemeister complete the provisional points' scorers in seventh and eighth, although both also had a number of problems, the former gearbox and transmission woes, while Gardemeister lost over 4 minutes when he had to stop in SS4 and change a puncture.

"I had no choice but to stop [this afternoon] and change the puncture," explained Ford's lead driver. "Then I couldn't pass Harri because he couldn't see me behind him due to the dust. When I finally passed him, I then spun and so the whole stage was a mess. It was so rough this afternoon that the car was bottoming out on the sumpguard in the ruts and it was hard to steer in places."

Of the rest 'works' drivers, Janne Tuohino and Roman Kresta round out the top ten, the latter arriving back at the final service on three wheels, following two punctures.

A number of drivers' though didn't get to the end of the leg. Marcus Gronholm was the first 'works' victim, the Finn forced out with a broken cam belt, shortly followed by Chris Atkinson with clutch problems. This afternoon Skoda's Armin Schwarz joined the list with alternator problems, while Petter Solberg, who had been running second overall, had turbo problems in SS4, and was then forced out in SS6 with electronic issues.

"It's very disappointing. Today has been so difficult I can't really believe it. The conditions were terrible; it was an effort just to complete the stages, as they were so rough," said 'Hollywood'.

"We had worked hard to prepare for this rally, but we weren't expecting any of the problems that we have encountered today. It's a very unusual rally and a very unusual situation. We'll wait and see how the car is, but of course I hope to start again tomorrow. That's the plan and I really believe that after what we've seen today it's possible for me to finish on the podium. I've often said anything is possible and tonight I believe that more than ever."

Gilles Panizzi meanwhile did make it to the end of the day in the second Mitsubishi, but he is way down, in 21st overall, after engine and gearbox problems.

In the Production Car WRC category Brice Tirabassi holds the overnight honours, 11.7seconds up on Federico Villagra, while Sebastian Beltran completes the class podium.

The second leg tomorrow [Saturday] covers a similar format, with two identical loops of three special stages split by service back in Limassol. The stages in the Troodos Mountains are more southerly, close to Mt Olympus and stretching west towards the resort of Paphos. Cars leave Limassol at 07.45 and return for the final overnight halt at 17.58.