BP Ford's Marcus Gronholm has ended the opening leg of the Rally Japan, the eleventh round in the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship, on top on Friday.

Gronholm will now go into the overnight halt with a 10.5 second lead over Sebastien Loeb, who is again best of the rest - and the Finn's only real threat.

Once again then it looks set to be a 'Gronholm-Loeb' battle both having shared the honours on the day's ten stages, which were muddy and tricky - the former taking six wins in his Focus and the latter four in his Kronos-run Xsara.

Gronholm began the day by setting the quickest time through Pawse Kamuy 1 and then backed that up by going quickest again through the 2.73 km test around the Rikubetsu ski centre. The rally then moved into the forests and Gronholm was second quickest in the 13.86km Kanna before ending the morning with another fastest time through the 34.96km Puray, the longest stage of the rally. As the drivers returned to the mid-day service, 9.3 seconds separated Gronholm from Loeb.

In the afternoon's loop, which was a repeat of those run in the morning, Marcus was quickest through the first two to increase his advantage to 13.7 seconds. However Loeb was once again fastest through Kanna and reduced the deficit to 7.4 seconds. Gronholm then won the second run through Puray to increase the gap back to 11.5 seconds.

Although Loeb won the final two tests, as they were only super specials it made little difference to the overall standings, although the Frenchman did managed to take back another second. Gronholm thus ended the day a happy man, although he admitted that he had hoped to have a bigger advantage.

Loeb however, was undoubtedly penalised somewhat early on, as he had to run first on the road and sweep away the loose gravel - a 'privilege' reserved for the driver who leads the championship standings.

A cautious start saw Seb set the fourth best time in SS1 and the fifth in SS2. However he stormed through the third test, 3.8 seconds quicker than Gronholm, who was second, to haul himself up from fourth to second overall. He was then second quickest in SS4 and in the afternoon, when his road position was less of a disadvantage, he began to apply a bit of pressure. In addition to winning SS7, SS9 and SS10, he was second in SS6 and SS8 and joint third in SS5 - all of which bodes well for leg 2 and a great battle between the two double world champions.

Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile is on course for third in the second BP-backed Focus. The Finn started strongly setting the second quickest time in SS1 and SS2. However he could 'only' manage two third quickest times in SS3 and SS4, an off near the start in the latter test, when he slide into a concrete bridge denting his confidence. Mikko thus returned to service nearly 40 seconds off the lead, and around 30 off the runners-up spot.

He conceded more ground in the afternoon and while he was second in SS5 and third through SS6, SS7 and SS8, he now lies over a minute off the lead and 50 seconds off second place.

Further-down the order, Manfred Stohl has moved up to fourth in his OMV Peugeot and Daniel Sordo is up to fifth, both benefiting after Chris Atkinson was handed a 50 second time penalty for leaving service 'A' five minutes late. Subaru had to fit a new suspension component to the Aussie's Impreza and this dropped him down to sixth, although he is only 1.6 seconds off Sordo.

Sordo in turn is 34 seconds off Stohl, the Spaniard though was not especially happy with his form in the morning and was frustrated he couldn't set quicker times. He also lost around 20 seconds on SS4 when he stalled at the start. Overall though, as it is his first time on this event it was a pretty good performance, with times consistently in the top ten, in addition to several top five times.

Toshi Arai and Petter Solberg complete the provisional points' scorers, the former going well on his first go in a World Rally Car since 2001 - despite clutch problems in the afternoon. Indeed Arai did well in the third 'works' Impreza and although he conceded it was taking a bit of time to re-adapt to a WRCar and just get a feel for the car, the reigning Production Car WRC will have delighted his home crowd with his form.

Subaru number one driver, Solberg did not have such a good day and while he started strongly and was running third early on, brakes issues in SS3 and SS4 cost him around 2 minutes and dropped him down the order. He had more problems in the afternoon and a podium place now looks unlikely, as he is over 2.5 minutes off Hirvonen.

Stobart VK duo, Matthew Wilson and Luis-Perez Companc round out the top ten, the former over 30 seconds up on his team-mate. Wilson Jr had a strong first outing with the new 2006 spec Focus and Companc also did well. The Argentine had few minor offs in SS4, but was extremely happy with the car, which he branded 'wonderful'.

Of the rest, Gareth MacHale lies eleventh in his privately entered Focus, just one place up on Jari-Matti Latvala, who heads the Group N runners and those in the Production Car World Rally Championship category.

Latvala has been locked in a battle for the Production honours all day with Fumio Nutahara, who led early on. Although Nutahara came back and re-took the lead in SS7, he dropped back down to second in SS8 and ended the leg 45.1 seconds adrift in his Mitsubishi.

Leszek Kuzaj is third in the PCWRC class and on course for the final podium position, while Gabriel Pozzo is fourth, with Marcos Ligato and Aki Teiskonen fifth and sixth respectively.

The action now resumes on Saturday - the second leg is the longest of the rally, covering 128.02km. After leaving Obihiro at 06.00, competitors return to the same area as today, although the route also includes tests further south near the town of Ashoro.

After nine more stages, the day ends with two more passes over the Obihiro super special stage before reaching the final overnight halt at 19.53.