55 cars left Monte Carlo this morning to start the opening round of the 2002 World Rally Championship, the Rallye Monte Carlo.

From there, crews headed 160kms north into the mountains and five stages based around a central service point at Digne-les-Bains.

Today's leg was the first opportunity to gauge the speed of many driver and car combinations fresh for 2002. And in the case of the 555 Subaru World Rally Team, the combination of Tommi Makinen, Petter Solberg, Pirelli and the Impreza WRC proved extremely competitive right from the start.

Despite his relative inexperience behind the wheel of the Subaru, Tommi Makinen ended his first competitive day with the team in second place overall. And although Solberg drove strategically to gain experience of the event - a fastest time on the repeated SS3 proved his lightening ability when equipped with stage knowledge.

Tommi Makinen said: "Overall, It's been a very good first day for me, it will be very nice to continue tomorrow with a bit more experience of the car on the stages. Obviously I'm learning new things about the car all the time, especially the braking distances."

"There is still a lot more potential, there are many things for me to work on until I will be 100% familiar with the Subaru. As far as the Pirellis go, well, I get the feeling I can go faster on some places with the tyres, I'm very happy with them."

His team-mate Petter Solberg added: "Obviously after the disappointment of the first stage this morning I wanted to make a better start and I was very pleased with my time on SS3, it went very well."

"I really like going through these stages for the second time. Every gear change, every junction was perfect and it all came together. At the final service today we made some small changes to the suspension, and for tomorrow my the plan is the same as it was today, I want to drive sensibly and then try and gain speed as I gain experience."

The first stage of the 2002 WRC presented drivers with a tarmac rollercoaster ride through the Alps. The test was new for this year and included a variety of grades of tarmac, narrow roads and a steep ascent to the Col des Garcinets.

Early morning weather conditions were dry and bright, but there were wet and icy patches on the first 14kms. However even before the stage had started the rally produced a few surprises. There was a terrible start for Citroen when two of their three works entries retired on the road before first service. Bugalski and Radstrom were left stranded with cracked engine blocks - the same problem that ended teammate Loeb's shakedown yesterday.

Meanwhile the Peugeot 206 of Panizzi left first service 13 minutes late and arrived at the start line for SS1 with two minutes 10 seconds of penalty time. Initially he had problems starting his engine in Monaco, but later reported a hydraulic fault - a complete transmission change in service the cause of his delay.

The stage itself was won by Sainz in the Ford Focus, but the Spaniard was less that a second ahead of the sensation on the stage, Tommi Makinen in the 555 Subaru. In a remarkable stage debut with the car, Makinen was already proving ultra-competitive. Third place went to Colin McRae, with Panizzi fourth. Richard Burns had a lucky escape when he went off the road following a fifth-gear jump, his car ended up in a field, but he was able to re-join the stage and keep on going.

Petter Solberg had some bad luck when he stalled on the start line and lost around 10 seconds. Employing a strategy of a cautious start to the event this year, the young Norwegian drove carefully to gain experience of the conditions.

The first of two passes through the famous Sisteron stage today - SS2 - was cancelled due to a massive crowd of spectators on the uphill section leading to Col de Font-Belle.

Thus a repeat of the first stage - SS3 - was in fact the second stage of the day. SS3 saw a terrific performance from Petter Solberg, who stormed through in his Subaru Impreza WRC an astonishing 12 seconds quicker than anyone else. Sharing the second-fastest time were Tommi Makinen and Colin McRae, while Marcus Gronholm was fourth. Road conditions on the 28km test had improved a little since the first pass, the temperature had risen to approx. 5?c and there were less icy and damp patches on the tarmac.

One of Hyundai's new signings, Freddy Loix, crashed 1.3kms into the stage and suffered a suspected broken foot. He was flown by helicopter to Gap hospital for checks. At the end of the stage, 555 Subaru World Rally Team driver Tommi Makinen held the overal lead of the rally.

This time there were no crowd problems and crews had their first run through the famous Sisteron section. The stage - SS4 - saw a dominant performance from the remaining Citroen driver, France's Sebastien Loeb, who won by a margin of 18 seconds. This propelled the youngster from fourth to first place overall. Marcus Gronholm was second quickest, with Colin McRae third and 555 Subaru team driver Petter Solberg fourth.

Like many others on the tricky surface Tommi Makinen lost some time in the snow, "We had a spin about 20kms in on the first right-hand hairpin. It was on an uphill section and was quite snowy, we tried to do a handbrake turn, but it was not very successful as the front wheels spun on the ice again. We had to turn the car around using first and reverse gears, I think we lost about 30 seconds with that, so I'll have to drive a little bit more carefully on those conditions."

Armin Schwarz however was less fortunate, his first rally with Hyundai came to an end when his car slid off the road and sustained suspension damage, he retired on the spot.

By the time SS5 started it was pitch dark and the temperature in the mountains had dropped back to around minus 2 ?c. Dry conditions meant all the top drivers elected to run slick tyres. But despite the daunting conditions the 26km stage brought another top performance from the Citroen driver who won the FIA Junior World Championship last year. Loeb's second consecutive stage win consolidated his position at the top of the leaderboard, and he will start tomorrow with a lead of 36 seconds. Gilles Panizzi was second fastest, but having lost so much time earlier in the leg, he still trails the leaders and is way down in 15th overall. Sainz was third quickest and Tommi Makinen fourth.

Tomorrow's Leg - leg two - starts at 0813 when cars leave Monaco parc ferme. Unusually they will travel directly to a 45-minute service typically carried out at the end of leg 1.

From the service area's harbourside location they will drive 64km to the first stage of the day at Pont de Clans. Saturday's leg comprises five special stages and a total competitive distance of 129 kilometres.