Sebastien Loeb was in brilliant form on the first leg of the Neste Oil Rally Finland on Friday and the Frenchman has built himself a solid advantage following the first 130-odd competitive kilometres.

Loeb, who took the lead last night by setting the pace through the short Killeri super special, was on it from the off in his Citroen C4 WRC car and he won four stages outright and tied for honours with Mikko Hirvonen in SS2 and SS6 - when they were both joint fastest.

Consequently he finished the first two loops with a 9.1 second lead.

In the afternoon he managed to successfully defend his position at the head of the pack and while Hirvonen spoilt his run in SS8 and was 0.7 seconds quicker, Loeb was fastest in SS9 and SS10.

After winning the repeat run through Killeri SSS, he concluded the day with a 14.4 second cushion.

"It could be that Mikko has a better position on the road tomorrow although the day was perfect for me today," said the four-time world champion. "I think we have got the settings on the car quite right now - the springs and dampers are perfectly matched. It is difficult to know if running first on the road will give us a disadvantage. There are some new stages tomorrow which are generally sinuous and twisty but we shall see."

Hirvonen meanwhile was the only runner anywhere near Loeb's pace and while he was no doubt disappointed to have been unable to beat his rival, the longest day of the event is still to come.

"Generally the day has been very good and my driving felt really nice. I don't mind being second and although Seb was faster, there are still lots of stages tomorrow - some of which are new, so anything is possible," he added.

"Seb has driven very well today and I think he must now have inherited that Finnish flair - he must be a Finn! For me it has almost been as close as last year. It's a little frustrating but I am not disappointed. It may be that Seb has found something in the car."

Henning Solberg is next up and on course for the final spot on the podium. The Norwegian ended SS2 in tenth, but gradually hauled himself up the order, taking P3 in the penultimate stage.

"Today has went well and it's been a great start to the rally for me. The car has been working well but we started off slowly this morning as it took some time to find a good feeling with the rear of the car," he explained.

"But the mechanics have done a great job and you can see from my times that the feeling is better now and I can push the way I like to. With no test before the rally it's been good to see that we have got off to a flying Finnish start and be on the podium at the end of the first day."

Gigi Galli and Dani Sordo however, are not that far behind in fourth and fifth and only 12 seconds or so separates the trio.

Sordo had been third for much of the day until a spin in SS8 dropped him to fourth. He then lost more time in the final three stages and now is 9.2 seconds off P4.

"I didn't feel as confident as this morning," said the Citroen #2 driver. "The stages were extremely fast at times and you needed to feel 100 per cent at one with your car to drive flat in places.

"We're not in a bad situation, though. We are in a good position for tomorrow and we will try to make the most of that."

Gigi was also content with how the day went and he managed seven top four times: "I wasn't able to keep the pace towards the end of the day and Henning has managed to get ahead but its fine, he's my friend and I don't mind him sweeping the road for me tomorrow," he joked.

"It has been a good day, it took us a while to just get up to speed this morning but my confidence is better now, the car and the Pirelli tyres are working well so I can push some more tomorrow."

Further down the order Subaru duo Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson are sixth and seventh, although both are more than 30 seconds off Sordo and over 1.5 minutes off the battle for the win.

Neither were very pleased with how the new Impreza WRC2008 performed: "It has not been a very good day and I am very disappointed," said 'Hollywood'. "We did some changes in service but unfortunately I went the wrong way with them. Essentially the car is not consistent and it hasn't worked as I hoped it would."

"We seem to have fixed the problem we had this morning which is good for the confidence but once you give a minute away in Finland you might as well give up," added Atkinson.

Suzuki's Per-Gunnar Andersson rounds out the points' scorers in eighth in the new 'B-spec' SX4 WRC, with Ford privateer Matti Rantanen and his team-mate, Toni Gardemeister ninth and tenth.

Gardemeister hurt his shoulder in SS7, when he went off the road, but luckily the Finn survived to get to the end of the leg: "When we went off in the second run through Palsankyla this afternoon, it was a very, very big moment for us. I would say we went off the road at about 180kp/h - incredible! I really thought we were going to roll," he recounted.

"We collected a puncture on the left-rear tyre which was there for the rest of the stage and I hurt my right shoulder in the impact. It was bad. Otherwise, the car has been good. It's a fantastic fight between myself and P-G and the best thing is that we're both in the top ten!"

Of the rest Britain's Matthew Wilson is on the fringes of the top ten in his Stobart Ford Focus, albeit 40 seconds off Gardemeister, while Conrad Rautenbach and Munchi's Ford WRT duo Luis-Perez Companc and Federico Villagra are 12th, 13th and 14th respectively.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi 'third' driver Khalid Al Qassimi completes the top 15, with P-WRC leader Juha Salo 16th. Salo is 8.7 seconds up on his closest class challenger, Juho Hanninen, with Patrik Flodin then third, 28 seconds further back.

In the J-WRC Michal Kosciuszko is top and currently on course for the maximum 'Junior' points, 4.9 seconds up on Martin Prokop.

As for the retirees the biggest casualty was Jari-Matti Latvala and the young Finn went out early on when he went off the road in SS3 after damaging his front suspension. Latvala will re-start under the SupeRally on Saturday to gain more experience of the tests.

Latvala wasn't the only World Rally Car driver to retire on day 1 however, as Mads Ostberg also went out when he made a mistake in his Adapta-run Subaru Impreza WRC in SS6, while the final loop claimed Citroen privateer Urmo Aava and Ramsport Ford runner Andreas Mikkelsen. It is not yet known if any of these drivers' will be able to re-start.

The Rally Finland now continues on Saturday and day two offers one of the most eagerly awaited challenges of the season. Drivers face 10 more stages covering 168.25km, almost half the distance of the entire rally. The route heads south-west towards J?ms? and includes some of the event's legendary sections of road, as well as some new, and narrower, stages. Drivers restart at 06.00 and return for the final overnight halt at 20.36 [all times local].