Gronholm leads as Solberg hunts.

Marcus Gronholm holds a lead of just under half a minute at the end of the opening leg of Wales Rally GB, although Petter Solberg remains close enough to put the pressure on the BP Ford man in the two days remaining in the WRC season finale.

Gronholm made the ideal start to the day when he set the pace on the opening run through the 17.41km Port Talbot stage, and followed that up by also posting the quickest times on both Resolfen 1 and Rheola 1 before the return to the Swansea service park for the mid-day service.

Into the afternoon, the Finn lost time time to Solberg on the repeat run through Port Talbot as he was only third quickest before the matching the Subaru man exactly on the penultimate stage of the day. However the final run through Rheola saw Solberg take over eight seconds out of Gronholm's lead, although the Finn wasn;t concerned at seeing his lead cut to 25.8secs after an opening leg characterised by tough stage conditions due to overnight rain.

"It was normal Rally GB conditions this morning with plenty of mud, but no standing water," the championship runner-up said. "First through the stages was the best place to be in those conditions. We pushed hard but took no risks. This afternoon I was not in such a fighting mood, I drove a little too safely and Petter closed in. But I am where I wanted to be tonight and tomorrow I will push hard again.

"Tomorrow's stages are shorter and tricky, especially if it rains and that seems likely. I want to keep Petter behind me but he is always fast on this rally and that won't be easy. I must wake up early and push hard if I am to stand a chance of winning."

For Solberg, eager to give Subaru a winning end to a difficult 2006, the day didn't start well when his Impreza stalled at a hairpin during the opening stage. Losing time as a result, he lay fourth heading into SS2 where the third fastest time allowed him to close the gap to third placed Manfred Stohl.

Jumping ahead of Stohl on SS3, 'Hollywood' was up to second when the teams headed back out into the stages in the afternoon when Ford's Mikko Hirvonen was forced to retire from second place due to damage sustained when he hit a rock on SS1.

Although Stohl claimed back some time on the second run through Port Talbot. Solberg was fastest on the final two stages of the day to leave him comfortable in second place and hopeful of continuing his form into leg two.

“It's been ages since we were able to take so much time from anybody and that's very motivating,” he said. “I hope we can continue like this tomorrow – I think it is going to be a very interesting day.”

Related Pictures

Click on relevant pic to enlarge
Petter Solberg (NOR) - Philip Mills (GBR), Subaru WRT Impreza WRC. Wales Rally GB, 1st-3rd December 2006.
Manfred Stohl (AUT) - Ilka Minor (AUT), OMV Peugeot Norway WRT 307 WRC. Wales Rally GB, 1st-3rd December 2006.
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