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.