Citroen's Sebastien Loeb concluded the opening leg of the inaugural Rally Ireland on Friday poised to take the victory - and seize the advantage in the battle for the 2007 drivers' title.

Loeb's bid to take his fourth world crown received a boost on the first loop this morning, when his chief championship rival, Marcus Gronholm crashed out heavily towards the end of SS4.

Although Gronholm was taken to hospital, along with his co-driver, Timo Rautiainen for precautionary checks, both were subsequently given the all-clear and released.

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Seb meanwhile, having lost out to Marcus last night in the short Stormont Super Special, immediately took over at the top this morning on the first 'proper' test, the 11.48 kilometre-dash through Geevagh 1.

He was unable to hold off his team-mate, Daniel Sordo however in SS3 and dropped behind the Spaniard in SS4, when he was again 'only' second quickest.

Loeb was hampered early on though by a rear left suspension problem and once this was fixed he bounced back in the middle loop, retaking the lead in second run through Geevagh.

Following that the Frenchman extended his margin further in SS6 and although he lost out to Sordo in SS7, he returned to the second service of the day with a 6.8 second cushion.

The final loop was again all about Loeb and Sordo, and while Sordo cut the gap to just 3 seconds following SS9, Seb finished the day with a flourish and took the margin back to just over 10 seconds.

All-in-all it was a top day for Citroen, as Loeb and Sordo won every single test for the French manufacturer - taking five wins apiece.

Stobart Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile is next up and on course for the final place on the rostrum. The Finn moved in front of Ford 'A' team member, Mikko Hirvonen on SS6 and then pulled away in the final loop to end the day 24.8 seconds in front.

Mikko was unable to respond this afternoon and slipped further and further back in the #2 BP Ford Focus. He complained that it has been a 'terrible' day and that he was unable to find a good rhythm.

Further down the order, Petter Solberg completed the top five for Subaru, although engine problems early on hampered his charge somewhat.

Britain's Guy Wilks was next up, after an impressive showing in his privately entered Impreza. Wilks set a number of top ten times and is currently on course to score his first ever 'senior' WRC points.

Of the rest, OMV Kronos Citroen's Manfred Stohl and Stobart Ford 'third' driver, Matthew Wilson came in seventh and eighth, followed by Tim McNulty and Gareth MacHale.

Mark Higgins lies just outside the top ten in eleventh - and in the lead in the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship category. Mark went in front this morning on SS2 and while he briefly lost the lead to Andreas Aigner in SS6, he re-took P1 on the next test, when the Austrian went out.

Mark, who needs to win to keep his PWRC title hopes alive, finished the day 55.5 seconds up Armindo Araujo, who is second in the class.

Gabriel Pozzo completes the PWRC podium at this stage - less than ten seconds further back. Pozzo, who like Higgins has an outside chance of depriving Toshi Arai of the PWRC title, needs to finish at least second to stay in the running.

A number of drivers' had problems during the first leg and were caught out by the muddy conditions.

In addition to Gronholm, Xavier Pons and Henning Solberg also retired. Pons went out in the same test as Marcus, after damaging his engine, while Henning hit a tree in SS8.

It is not yet known if any of them will be able to re-start under the SupeRally format.

The action now continues on Saturday - six stages lay in wait, totalling around 120 competitive kilometres. SS11, the 27.76 kilometre-run through Sloughan Glen 1 starts at 08.13 hours local time.

With rain forecast though, it is far from over and proceedings could yet take another twist...