Colin McRae and Nicky Grist destroyed the opposition during yesterday's opening leg of the Rally Argentina to open a comfortable lead in their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.

The British pair were fastest on four more speed tests to add to their two quickest times on last night's super special stages as they ended the longest leg of the four-day rally 41.4sec ahead of fellow countryman Richard Burns.

Ford Martini team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya lie third in their Focus RS, the Madrid-based driver bravely shrugging off a back injury to set one fastest time, ensuring that a Focus was fastest on seven of the leg' eight stages. Frangois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup rolled their Focus in the very first kilometre but recovered well to hold ninth after 150.59km of competition.

After the excitement of the opening night's short opening stages, thousands of fans flocked to the hills north of the city of Cordoba to watch the world's top drivers weave their way across the vast, open plains. McRae and Grist did
not disappoint them despite early morning fog and fears that their lowly running position would leave them at the mercy of poor road conditions as the gravel tracks became churned up by previous cars.

The 32-year-old Scottish driver shattered stage record times on three occasions as he quickly opened up a lead in the morning and consolidated his advantage during the afternoon tests. Drier than expected conditions left the road surface harder and smoother than feared and he made the most of his good fortune.

"Conditions have been far better than we thought," said McRae. "Before the start I would have been overjoyed to be in the top three tonight so to be leading is amazing. Considering our lack of knowledge with Pirelli's tyres on gravel in competition, they've worked very well and everything just seems to have fallen into place. We'll try to play safe tomorrow. Running first on the road shouldn't be a problem but we must take care because it's easy to be caught out on these roads. They're very tricky in places."

Sainz ended the day a tired man as the effects of a trapped nerve in his back took their toll and the painkillers began to wear off. In the circumstances, his performance was exceptional, the 39-year-old admitting that although he could live with the pain, it meant he was not concentrating fully on his driving.

"I'm very pleased so far with my performance and pleased to get through the day," said Sainz. "I'm tired but the advice from our medical team has been excellent. I'm feeling confident although it took a while this morning to get into the rhythm. I need a good night's rest and hopefully tomorrow will be even better for us."

Delecour and Grataloup were the victims of a slow roll in the opening kilometre of this morning's first stage. "It happened at the first hairpin," said Delecour. "There was a deep rut on the inside and we toppled over. Spectators pushed the car back onto its wheels but we lost more time
because the windscreen smashed and I couldn't see."

With a new windscreen fitted, Delecour fought back from 18th to ninth, the Frenchman relishing his first real experience of the Focus on pure gravel in competition. "It's the best car on gravel I've ever driven," he said. "I'm still learning about the Focus on this surface and so there is more room for improvement."

Ford Martin team director Malcolm Wilson was delighted with his team's performance. "Seven fastest times from eight stages is fantastic. I was confident for this rally but then I was for Spain and we didn't perform there. Both Colin and Carlos have driven superbly, and Carlos has been
marvellous given the pain he's suffering," he said.

News from Ford's Rivals:

Only second-placed Richard Burns (Subaru) broke Ford's domination of stage wins with fastest time on stage six, the Briton's only problem a spin on the first test. Third-placed Tommi Mdkinen (Mitsubishi) had a lucky escape after finding a spectator standing on the racing line while flat in sixth gear. After sliding wide and hitting a bank his car kicked up onto two wheels but fortunately did not go over.

Team-mate Freddy Loix did not enjoy the same luck, the Belgian rolling on stage seven. Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) dropped time after losing power with a turbo wastegate problem on stage four while team-mate Harri Rovanperd was the day's only major retirement, the Finn lying fifth when he broke his suspension at a river crossing.

Skoda team-mates Armin Schwarz and Bruno Thiry suffered early suspension problems after each hit a rock and a lack of power was magnified by the high altitude at which the rally is run. Two punctures on the penultimate stage and only one available spare forced Schwarz to start the last stage with a flat tyre and he dropped another 30 seconds.

Hyundai team-mates Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson had to endure a fiery day, both having to stop to put out flames from the rear of their cars. McRae also dropped time when a faulty master switch caused the engine to stop five times on stage five.

Tomorrow's Route:

The second leg takes drivers south to smoother, more flowing but generally shorter tests around Santa Rosa de Calamuchita. After leaving Villa Carlos Paz at 07.05, competitors will tackle six stages down there before heading
back for a short test on the edge of Cordoba. They arrive back in Villa Carlos Paz at 17.43 after 120.43km of competition.

Leaderboard after Leg 1:

1. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 1hr 48min 18.0sec
2. R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 1hr 48min 59.4sec
3. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 1hr 49min 15.3sec
4. T Makinen/R Mannisenmaki FIN Mitsubishi Lancer 1hr 49min 18.9sec
5. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Peugeot 206 1hr 49min 53.0sec
6. M Gronholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 1hr 50min 03.3sec
7. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 1hr 50min 08.0sec
8. F Loix/S Smeets B Mitsubishi Carisma 1hr 51min 29.1sec
9. F Delecour/D Grataloup F Ford Focus RS 1hr 51min 52.3sec
10. B Thiry/S Privot B Skoda Octavia 1hr 52min 36.9sec