Frenchman Sebastien Loeb set about making up for the disappointment of not scoring any points in Corsica last weekend by leading Rallye Catalunya at the end of leg one.

This penultimate round of the 2003 FIA World Rally Championship started from Lloret de Mar early this morning and took crews north of the coastal resort and into the stages surrounding the town of Vic.

Fastest out of the blocks in SS1 was Subaru's Petter Solberg. Unfortunately for the Norwegian he dropped to third on the next two tests and then out of the top ten altogether when the team was forced to change the alternator on his Impreza at the cost of 50 seconds of road penalties.

Throughout this drama, Loeb was turning in another accomplished drive. The Citroen Xsara WRC pilot was faultless over the eight stages and arrived back in Lloret this evening with a 26.2-second lead over his team-mate Carlos Sainz.

Sainz's day was similarly trouble-free in his Citroen. Markko Martin put in a sterling effort to bring his Ford Focus to an overnight third, given the problems the Estonian was having with his neck muscles, a legacy of the heavy crash which ended his run in Corsica just five days ago.

All four Citroen Xsara WRCs ran without technical problems through leg 1, although Philippe Bugalski did not like the new shock absorbers which were fitted to his car for the first three stages of the rally.

Loeb moved into the lead on the second stage. The Frenchman's only problem through the opening loop was to find a rock on the line he was taking through the stage. His concern about possible damage to the car was unfounded and he continued to set the pace on the opening leg.

"We have been pushing very hard today," said Loeb, "The problem with the rock this morning shows that you do need some luck some times. The rock hit the sump guard and knocked the front of the car into the air, then I heard it hit something on the left-rear - but we got away with it."

Sainz admitted he was trying all he knew to keep up and try to pass his team-mate, but at the same time Sainz pointed out it was a fine line between pushing to the limit and going over it. The championship leader held second position for the majority of this first day of Rallye Catalunya.

"This morning some of the corners were quite tricky," noted Sainz, "The stages were dry, but if you were taking the cut into the corner then you went across the grass, which could be quite slippery. Obviously we are trying as hard as we can, but at the same time we have to keep the car on the road."

Colin McRae spun on the fourth stage but, that aside, today was without major problem for the Scotsman.

"The spin came because the car stalled when we handbraked it at a left-hand hairpin," explained the Brit, "The day's been okay for us. This morning was a bit tricky, some parts of the new stage were difficult, narrow, with quite big edges off the sides of the road."

Philippe Bugalski's rally didn't get off to the best of starts. He took a shock absorber that was too hard for the first loop of stages, which knocked his confidence.

"The tyres and the suspension were too soft this morning," commented Bugalski, "Okay we have gone to better settings for the rest of today, but I just haven't been able to find the feeling on this event."

At Ford meanwhile Martin's Focus RS WRC03s ran without problems, while Francois Duval suffered a small problem with the launch control system on his '03 car. Mikko Hirvonen's 2002 specification Focus ran with a long brake pedal on the middle two of today's stages.

Martin's biggest problem throughout the opening leg was a physical one. His accident on the Tour of Corsica last Sunday left him with pulled muscles in his neck. The team put padding on the back of his seat, but the Estonian admitted he was still struggling on the longer stages. Despite these problems, he still managed to hold a podium position during today's eight stages.

"For the first ten kilometres of stages I'm okay, but after that the muscles in my neck are really starting to strain," said Martin, "It's not the pain that's bothering me, it's the fact that I can't really feel what the car's doing through my body. I'm finding it really hard to get the car on the limit like this. I tried a neck brace at shakedown yesterday, but it wasn't good at all. The car has been perfect for me today."

Duval hit a rock and damaged the steering of his car on the opening stage, then stalled on the start of the next test and finally was concerned by the oil warning light flashing on the third and final test in leg one's first loop. From then on, however, the Belgian's run through Friday was relatively straightforward and trouble-free.

"The geometry was wrong after we hit the rock this morning, there was no way we could avoid it," noted Duval, "After that, I found the fourth and fifth stages hard to read - it was my first time through them. The second run at this morning's stages were better - we made some places up there."

Hirvonen admitted to a big moment on the third stage this morning, which resulted in a flattened exhaust and a loss of power. On the next stage, the mousse was damaged in a front puncture which caused a bad vibration for the final five kilometres of SS5.

Hirvonen commented: "Our tyre was quite a safe choice this morning, but I made a mistake on the third stage: we slid towards a ditch, I thought the car was going to roll, but it didn't it jumped over the ditch, but flattened the exhaust. The brake problem didn't really cost me any time - it was just in my head that the pedal was long and whenever you have anything with the brakes, you always think about it a little bit more."

None of the Peugeot's suffered any mechanical problems throughout the opening leg of Rallye Catalunya.

A poor tyre choice on the first loop of stages cost Marcus Gronholm and Gilles Panizzi dearly. They ran with a Michelin which was too soft for opening three tests of the rally. Richard Burns admitted his choice of rubber had worked better through the first loop, but still he felt he could have gone for a harder compound.

Sixth quickest on the fourth stage moved Burns into the top four and the position of leading 206. That lasted until the seventh stage, when he went off the road near the start of the test and dropped 30 seconds. At that point, Panizzi was into the groove, fastest time on the day's penultimate test nudged him further up the leaderboard and ensured he would take the mantle of top 206 overnight in fourth position. Burns' problems dropped him back to sixth, while Gronholm was tenth.

Burns said: "This morning the tyre was moving around a lot, too much - we were on the limit of the grip. The new part of the third stage was really slippery. I was happy with my time on the fourth stage - then we heard Gilles' time, he was exceptional. Going off later in the day did some damage to the rear suspension."

Gronholm added: "After one kilometre I knew the tyre was wrong this morning. It was bad, the car was all over the place. The car was okay, but after this morning there's not much to say about anything."

Panizzi continued: "Like Marcus, my tyre choice was a disaster this morning, much too soft. After that first loop, things were much better - we were really able to push. The car has been good for all of the first day, now we need to concentrate on getting the time back we dropped this morning."

At the Subaru World Rally Team a front bearing on the alternator collapsed on Petter Solberg's Impreza this morning, which meant the car couldn't be started at the end of service B. Tommi Makinen's car ran without technical troubles throughout leg one.

Changing Solberg's alternator took six minutes and cost him 50 seconds in road penalties as the Norwegian booked out of service five minutes late. This problem dropped him out of the top ten from his early third place. The rally had started in the best possible fashion for the winner of the last round, when he set fastest time on the opening stage. Solberg spent the remainder of the day battling his way back up the leaderboard.

Makinen's day was without incident, although the four-times world champion admitted he was surprised at how much corner-cutting had gone on early in the day.

Solberg said: "It's a big disappointment that we had that problem with the alternator, particularly as we had made such a strong start with the fastest time in SS1. Having said that it's better to have had that problem in service, if the car had fired up then we might have had the problem in the stage, and that would have been worse."

Makinen added: "I took it steady through the opening stage this morning, I was playing myself into the event. It was really slippery on the first loop, though. We are running a little bit further back down the order - and there was a lot of dirt on the road. Through the rest of the day, as the temperatures have gone up, we have struggled to find the level of grip which we would have liked."

Over at Skoda Didier Auriol's Fabia WRC was hit by a turbo problem on the second loop of stages this morning. Toni Gardemeister wasn't happy with the set-up of his car, but felt better when it was returned to the same specification as it ran in Corsica.

Once again the two Skodas ran close together on the leaderboard, just outside the top ten. Neither driver had any major problems, but both commented on their car's engine, which they feel is down on power compared to their rivals on a rally where power is crucial to keep the speed down the long Catalan straights. Auriol's start to his 150th FIA World Rally Championship event was good, however, as he posted a top ten time.

Auriol commented: "The pipe came off the turbo intercooler for the fourth stage, this cost us time and power. The engine needs more power, but at the same time the handling of the car is very good - the car feels very stable in these corners."

Gardemeister added: "This morning the car was okay, but I just wasn't happy with the handling. We took a tyre which was much too soft for the stages - that was certainly part of the problem - but the rest of it was down to the set-up. Once the team had changed it around, everything felt better."

Of the other entries FIA Junior World Rally Championship leader Brice Tirabassi also heads the charge for ten points on this rally. The Renault Clio driver has enjoyed a largely trouble-free event in his FFSA-backed car, the 25-year-old is being chased by Kris Meeke, who claimed an overnight second spot in his Opel Corsa. The Ulsterman was slightly surprised at his second place, pointing out that he wasn't taking risks to put in the times he was. Salvador Canellas - Tirabassi's biggest title threat - was third, and quickest of the four Suzukis.

Frenchman Cedric Robert is the best privateer in a 206 Peugeot - twelfth overall.

Rally statistics - Leg 1:

Starters: 47 crews (42 Group A and 5 Group N) started this morning.

Top retirements: Baldacci (RSM).

Today - Friday 24 October: Leg 1 started from Lloret de Mar at 06h45 and covered 654.07km, including 146.36km on eight stages. The first car arrived back in Lloret de Mar at 21h03.

Tomorrow - Saturday 25 October: Leg 2 starts from Lloret de Mar at 07h00 and covers 429.69km, including 131.26km on eight stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Lloret de Mar at 18h08.

Weather forecast: Showers expected overnight, with changeable conditions tomorrow.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:

SS1 La Trona 1 (13.17kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 8m 23.6
2. Duval (B) Ford 8m 23.7
3. Martin (EE) Ford 8m 23.9

SS2 Alpens-Les Llosses 1 (21.80kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 13m 07.3
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 13m 11.8
3. Martin (EE) Ford 13m 14.2

Leaders after SS2:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 21m 32.7
2. Martin (EE) Ford 21m 38.1
3. Sainz (E) Citroen 21m 38.8

SS3 La Pobla de Lillet 1 (22.55kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 15m 03.5
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 15m 06.9
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 15m 11.1

Leaders after SS3:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 36m 36.2
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 36m 45.7
3. Solberg (N) Subaru 36m 56.3

SS4 Saint Jula 1 (26.27kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 15m 35.3
2. Panizzi (FIN) Peugeot 15m 35.8
3. Duval (B) Ford 15m 37.1

Leaders after SS4:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 52m 11.5
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 52m 23.5
3. Martin (EE) Ford 52m 35.4

SS5 Taradell 1 (5.05kms):
1. Martin (EE) Ford 2m 56.2
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 2m 57.4
= Panizzi (F) Peugeot 2m 57.4
4. Loeb (F) Citroen 2m 58.4

Leaders after SS5:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 55m 09.9
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 55m 20.9
3. Martin (EE) Ford 55m 31.6

SS6 La Trona 2 (13.17kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 8m 15.7
2. Martin (EE) Ford 8m 18.6
3. Duval (B) Ford 8m 18.8

Leaders after SS6:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 03m 30.6
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 1h 03m 43.7
3. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 03m 50.2

SS7 Alpens-Les Llosses 2 (21.80kms):
1. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 13m 10.6
2. Duval (B) Ford 13m 11.6
3. Loeb (F) Citroen 13m 11.9

Leaders after SS7:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 16m 42.5
2. Sainz (E) Citroen 1h 17m 00.2
3. Martin (EE) Ford 1h 17m 04.2

SS8 La Pobla de Lillet (22.55kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 14m 55.3
2. Panizzi (F) Peugeot 14m 57.5
3. Burns (GB) Peugeot 15m 00.9

Leaders after SS8:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 31m 37.8
2. Sainz (E) Citroen +26.2
3. Martin (EE) Ford +31.2
4. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +33.5
5. Duval (B) Ford +55.0
6. Burns (GB) Peugeot +1m 14.0
7. McRae (GB) Citroen +1m 22.9
8. Bugalski (F) Citroen +1m 39.3
9. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +1m 42.0
10. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot +1m 56.2



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