Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has ended the opening leg of the Rally Mexico on top, having inherited the lead after Petter Solberg was forced out prior to the start of the final 'proper' test.

Seb managed to keep in touch with Solberg following the opening loop this morning and although the Frenchman was unable to match the Norwegian, he was second quickest to him in SS1 and SS3 and was third fastest in SS2. As a result he returned to the mid-day service area at Leon just 7.7 seconds adrift and still more than in contention.

In the afternoon, Loeb turned the screw and slashed the margin to 4.9 seconds after the repeat run through the 23.06 kilometre Alfaro test. He then cut the gap further in SS5, leaving Petter with just a 2.1 second cushion before the Subaru gave up the ghost.

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Seb will now take a 26 second lead into the second day on Saturday and while there are still a lot of kilometres to go, he is already looking strong and should be able to pace himself through leg 2.

Petter meanwhile having lost the lead, will have to console himself with the fact he set three fastest stage times this morning and was extremely competitive with the new car, which appeared fast, if fragile. Granted he benefited from a better road position, but still it was a good start for the new Impreza WRC2007, something that was also illustrated by the form of Petter's team-mate, Chris Atkinson.

With Solberg out, Atkinson took over the mantle and he is locked in a fierce battle with BP Ford's Mikko Hirvonen, with just 3.8 seconds between them, although granted both are some way behind Loeb.

Mikko lost out this morning as he was running second on the road and therefore had to 'sweep' away the lose gravel. He came back in the repeat runs though and was third and second quickest in SS5 and SS6, Ortega 2 and El Cubilete, to haul himself up the leaderboard from sixth to third.

Marcus Gronholm however didn't manage to bounce back quite as well and slipped behind OMV Kronos' Manfred Stohl on SS5. Although he regained fifth spot after the super specials, the Finn will now start the second leg some 40-seconds off the lead and with something of a mountain to climb, if he is to win.

Daniel Sordo and Stohl meanwhile are fourth and sixth, sandwiching Gronholm's Ford. Sordo enjoyed a strong day and is clearly glad to have left the winter events behind him. The Spaniard posted top four times in every single test, bar one, when he was 7th in SS5. Stohl has also gone well in his Xsara and won the Ortega 2 test.

Further-down the leaderboard, Stobart's Jari-Matti Latvala and Matthew Wilson round out the top eight, both having a solid day. Latvala has been 'Mr Consistent' and was eighth fastest in 5 of the 6 proper tests and ended the leg easily ahead of his team-mate, 2.5 minutes in front. Wilson for his part is comfortably in eighth, the final points' paying position, over a minute up on fellow Ford runner, Gareth MacHale.

Three-time British Rally champion, Mark Higgins completes the top ten, in his Group N Mitsubishi Evo. Higgins has had a good day and in addition to heading the Group N class, also leads the Production WRC category, 10 seconds up on Mirco Baldacci, who heads the chasing pack, followed by Toshi Arai and Fumio Nutahara.

Of the rest, Henning Solberg ended the day 19th having lost over 3 minutes on the first test following a roll.

Luis-Perez Companc was the only other 'works' retirement, in addition to Petter. Companc went out on Alfaro 1, SS1, when he suffered suspension damage less than 2-4 kilometres into the 23.06 kilometre stage. It is thought that he will re-start on day 2 under the SupeRally.

Companc's Munchi's team-mate, Juan Pablo Raies is 15th and currently on course to take the final manufacturers' point.

More to follow on Saturday...