The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution WRC made its long-awaited competition debut today in Rallye Sanremo, the 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, however the Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart drivers were hampered by an electrical component fault in the opening stages of the event.

Nearly 5,000 kilometres of testing could not have predicted the problem which, at this early stage, has left Tommi Makinen/Risto Mannisenmaki and Freddy Loix/Sven Smeets in 14th and 17th positions respectively.

The palm-tree lined promenade in the Mediterranean coastal resort provided an attractive setting for the start of the 43rd Rallye Sanremo last night. Floodlights picked out the 73 competing crews as they crossed the start ramp, but the real action began early this morning when they headed into the hills north of the host town for the opening eight special stages and 138 competitive kilometres. Conditions remained dry and warm this morning, although the roads were damp in places, however fog dropped later this afternoon, adding to the challenge, and the fanatical Italians will not have been disappointed by the fast and furious action.

In contrast to New Zealand where none of the manufacturers' cars retired, special stage 1 hit hard. Subaru's Richard Burns went off the road and into retirement after just four kilometres, and the Briton was swiftly followed by Armin Schwarz who, despite making it to the finish, was forced out with a broken alternator on his Skoda. Completing a trio of retirements within just 12 competitive kilometres, Hyundai's asphalt driver Piero Liatti also went off the road.

The Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart crews are however in the event and four-times FIA World Rally Champion Tommi Makinen still has everything to fight for. As predicted, the French manufacturers are dominating the top six leaderboard, being that their national Championship is fought out over asphalt, but more importantly in the fight for the Championship title, Burns has retired, Carlos Sainz is 7th and Colin McRae is down in 13th, what could prove to be a significant bonus for the Finn.

Makinen's problems started in the second stage of the rally, a component fault affecting the locking of the differentials that resulted in a lack of grip over the dry and twisty roads. With such fierce competition from a host of specialist asphalt drivers, the Finn quickly lost time to his rivals before the fault was rectified this afternoon. "It was very strange because nothing like this has happened during testing and everything felt good at shakedown," said the Finn. "Basically the diffs have not been locking and although things were better this afternoon with the front and centre diffs, the rear was still not quite right. Hopefully the team has sorted the problem and we'll get a clean run tomorrow. Obviously it's disappointing, but I'm encouraged that my Championship rivals have also had problems."

Team-mate Freddy Loix has experienced the same problems, his identified on the run out to the first service. "We changed the settings in the middle of the day and locked the diffs, which made things a bit better," said Loix. "We then had understeer on the last group of stages, but there are still lots of kilometres and if we can get the car working properly we'll have the opportunity to really push and show what it can do."

Adding to the drivers' comments, team manager Derek Dauncey said: "The fault we had with an electrical component has now been rectified and the times have been better this afternoon. When everything's working well, the car has the speed and the drivers can start to show its potential. We'll continue to push as there is a lot at stake."

The second leg of Rallye Sanremo starts on Saturday at 06:00 hrs. The 142.01 competitive kilometre route takes the contenders over the same stages as those run today, although some are run in reverse.