After last night's spectacular opening to this tenth round of the FIA World Rally Championship at Perth's Gloucester Park, the action began in earnest this morning when the 49 starters headed south of the city to continue the opening leg.

Eight more gravel speed tests lay in wait before a repeat run over the Gloucester Park super special stage to round off the day's action.

Overcast skies and drizzle greeted competitors as they tackled the opening two special stages clustered alongside the Murray River. Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park were third fastest through the 18.49km Murray North in their Castrol-branded Focus RS WRC to retain their overnight third position. However, the Rally Finland winners dropped more than 20 seconds on the following 20.12km Murray South after making a mistake and going off the road before bouncing back to set fastest time on the short 5.20km Gobbys, a new stage to the event. They arrived at the Jarrahdale service park in seventh.

"Everything feels good with the car but I just made a mistake early in the stage," said Martin. "We reached a section where a left-hand bend leads into a right corner and I became confused where the road went next. I'm sitting so low in the car that I couldn't see much and I turned into the bend too early. I ended up among the trees and almost in a picnic area! The engine stalled and I had to reverse out again so we lost quite a few seconds. I was lucky not to hit any trees."

Team-mates Francois Duval and St?phane Pr?vot lie 13th, the 22-year-old Belgian driver enduring a difficult start. "It's been a hard morning so far," he said. "I don't have any confidence and I'm braking too early. After the shakedown test yesterday we decided to opt for harder spring settings but in the mud and slippery conditions I think a softer setting would have been better."

Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen started well in their M-Sport-run 2002 specification Focus RS. Twenty-three-year-old Hirvonen, competing in Australia for the first time, was 11th fastest through both Murray North stages before speeding to a superb third quickest through Gobbys to climb into tenth position overall.

"It was hard to find a good rhythm on the first two stages," said Hirvonen. "I was just trying to survive and was surprised how good my times were. But on the next stage we had a good clean line. All the loose stones had been swept clear and we went flat out all the way. It was a great time. I don't really like the wet conditions, it would have been better for me if it had been drier."



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