Peugeot 206 WRCs fill two of the top three places on the 11th round of the FIA World Rally Championship, the Sanremo Rally, which started in earnest in northern Italy today.

French asphalt ace Gilles Panizzi leads the event as he continues to stun onlookers with his recovery from a shoulder injury, and current world championship leader Marcus Gr?nholm holds third overall. Between them, they ensured that the 206 scored a clean sweep of fastest times on today's stages.

After a ceremonial start in the coastal resort of Sanremo yesterday evening, today's eight stages took crews onto the narrow asphalt roads in the mountains behind the town and the host to the central service area, Imperia.

Peugeots were instantly on the pace, with 206 WRC driver Gr?nholm setting fastest time on the opening test to again demonstrate how much extra confidence he now has on asphalt stages.

Thereafter, however, Panizzi grabbed the initiative. The Frenchman said he felt no pain from his shoulder (damaged last month in a fall at his home) and he set fastest times on all of the day's remaining stages as he inched clear of the opposition. He finished today's closing stage more than 20 seconds in front of the chasing pack.

"I'm obviously very pleased with how the rally is going for me," said Gilles. "Firstly, I have a very good feeling with the car - it's handling really well and that gives me a lot of confidence. But secondly, my shoulder has not been giving me any problems. Before the start I was a little worried that it might get tired very quickly but so far, that hasn't happened. I think I can continue at this pace and as we've seen today, we're pretty strong here."

The afternoon witnessed a close battle involving both of Peugeot's other manufacturer points-nominated 206s. Reigning world champion Richard Burns had been Panizzi's closest challenger in the early stages but as the day progressed, the Englishman found himself under increasing pressure from Frenchman Philippe Bugalski and the third 206 of Gr?nholm. The Finn was recovering quickly after a loss of turbo boost in SS3, and then gearbox and brake glitches, had dropped him down the order. Try as he might, Burns couldn't prevent Bugalski from inching ahead and then in the very last stage of the day, Gr?nholm nipped through into third overall too.

"I genuinely can't tell where Marcus was getting the time in the last few stages today," commented Burns. "For me it felt fine inside the car - the last stage had a bit of fog that was swirling around so the visibility changed for everyone from corner to corner, but the penultimate stage felt very good for me and still he took time. I'll have to have a good talk with the engineers to see if we can work out why this happened and find more speed for tomorrow."

Gronholm noted: "It's been a quite frustrating day because I've got a good feeling with the car and I know from the times of Gilles and Richard that we could be right up there. But we had this loss of boost and then some more problems this afternoon, so we've got a lot of work to do. Tomorrow I think we can get close to Bugalski and put some pressure on him, but Gilles is too far away already."

Several other 206 WRCs feature in a top 20 packed with high-quality entries. Frenchman Cedric Robert, who normally drives a Super 1600 206 in the French championship, has stepped up to a 206 WRC for this event and he holds an excellent eighth overall after posting some stunning times as he acclimatises to a World Rally Car in competition.

Bruno Thiry and Peugeot's regular works driver Harri Rovanper? (using a privately-run car on this outing) also brought their 206s back to Sanremo this evening in 11th and 15th respectively.

Tomorrow's second leg is slightly longer than today and it will undoubtedly pose another stiff challenge to the world's top drivers. The crews will again face an early start (06h00 for the first car) and with more of the roads being repeated, the drivers will have to cope with more unpredictable conditions where loose gravel has been dragged over the asphalt surface. The potential gains remain high, however - with only four stages scheduled for Sunday, the leaders tomorrow night will be in strong positions to aim for points on the final day.