Sebastien Loeb has taken the early advantage for Citroen today [Friday] on the Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo and holds an 18.3 second advantage over Ford's lead driver Markko Martin.

Loeb, who won the final test of the day [SS6], by 5.9 seconds, commented: "Considering the conditions at the start of the leg, I decided to be very careful. It was very tricky, and I wanted to avoid making any mistakes. After that, the roads changed, and gradually, we 'got back in the game', gaining confidence and increasing the pace. In the last special stage, I was totally at ease with my Xsara WRC, and I was able to really push."

Marcus Gronholm meanwhile has had a mixed day in the new Peugeot 307 WRC, the Finn breaking the gearbox in stage four and then struggling with the wrong tyre choice in the final stage. Despite this, the Finnish former double World Champion led for most of the day, only slipping to third after stage six.

"This morning's stage was much more slippery than I thought, but the performance of the 307 is fantastic," noted the Finn. "We had a very good feeling with the car all day, but the problem on SS4 worried me. We were lucky that it happened close to the end of the stage, but after it was fixed we could keep going. The last stage wasn't so good, but I'm happy with the way that everything has gone today. We're in a good position to fight tomorrow."

Carlos Sainz holds fourth in the second Xsara WRC with young Francois Duval in a fine fifth, despite struggling with the ever-changing conditions.

"The car has been great and I've made no mistakes," said the Ford driver, "I've enjoyed the day even though it has been so difficult. Stephane [Prevot - my co-driver] has been superb, slowing me down and ensuring I was careful in the really slippery sections. Tomorrow's stages are twisty and slower, which I don't like so much, but I will try to regain fourth place."

Reigning World Champion Petter Solberg is sixth, the Norwegian's campaign off to a bad start when he skidded into a fence post in the first stage. 'Hollywood' though is not worried by his rather average start.

"It's been difficult today, what with being first on the road and being forced to make some very difficult tyre choices," said the Norwegian, "As the temperatures rose, the amount of snow and ice became very unpredictable, but that's how it is. I'm happy with where I am, my plan was always to be between fourth and sixth at the end of the first day. Tomorrow, perhaps we'll try more speed, but I have a lot of respect for this rally and can't be stupid like last year. I wanted to come through the first day cleanly and I've done just that."

There has been only one works retirement, the Mitsubishi of Gigi Galli, which slide off the road in stage five, 1.5 kms from the start, beached two metres from the road side. Prior to that the Italian had been leading the charge for the returning Mitsubishi, fourth fastest through SS3 and consistently in the top ten. The fact his car was not damaged in his off, merely added to his misery.

"We slid and the car ended up half off the road," explained Galli, "Then it slipped another couple of metres and it was impossible to get back; there was hardly any damage and mechanically it was fine, which makes it all the more disappointing. We took it steady this morning so I was surprised with our time in stage three, but I felt very confident with the car, even though the conditions were very difficult."

Team-mate Gilles Panizzi has had a more troubled day in the second Mitsubishi, and despite his team leader status, languished down the field, just outside the top ten at the end of day one, in eleventh. The Frenchman though has been hampered by transmission problems and is concentrating on notching up as much mileage as possible in the new Lancer WRC04.

Mario Fornaris, technical director at Mitsubishi, stated: "We had a failure in the transmission [on Gilles Panizzi's car] and hopefully tomorrow will be better. The team is still learning and understanding the car and it was not tested in these conditions; we expected to have some new problems."

Of the other manufacturer backed drivers, Freddy Loix is ninth for Peugeot, behind Roman Kresta in seventh - who incidentally is the top privateer in his Hyundai Accent - while Subaru new boy, Mikko Hirvonen is eighth.

Loix, who was rather unimpressive throughout the first five tests, ended the leg on a high, by posting the second fastest time in stage six, he will go into tomorrow determined to show the bosses at Peugeot that he has what it takes.

"It wasn't a perfect start for me as I made a mistake in changing the set-up of the car during the first stage," said the Belgium, "I didn't feel very comfortable after that, but during the next loop of stages it got better. On the last two stages I had a good tyre choice and I was able to push hard. I've got a nice feeling with the car now, and I hope it can be like that tomorrow as well."

Hirvonen was glad to get through the day, his target pre-rally was to finish, ideally in the points, something at the moment he is accomplishing.

"It's been a really good first day, I'm really happy," said the Finn, who got the drive ahead of veteran Colin McRae, "It's all going according to our plan and to already be in a point winning position feels good. I had a little bit of a shock driving on the snow this morning, but we took things steady and I've made no mistakes all day. I lifted off a bit on the last stage, just to be safe, but I'm very pleased with how it's gone and I'm looking forward to tomorrow."

At the end of the leg, 33 competitors remain out of 43 starters, amongst those going out on day one was six Junior World Rally Championship runners, including Guy Wilks in the Suzuki Ignis and Natalie Barratt in the MG ZR.

The JWRC category is currently lead by Kosti Katajamaki, ten seconds ahead of fellow Suzuki team-mate Urmo Aava, while Nicolas Bernardi [Renault Clio] completes the top three - 15 Junior entries remain.

The second leg tomorrow [Saturday] is based around a central service park next to the swimming pool complex on Monaco's Grand Prix circuit. Drivers tackle one stage north of Monaco before two loops of two stages north of Grasse, both tests run in the opposite direction to 2003. The double loop includes two passes through the narrow and twisty Col de Bleine, one of the rally's classic tests.

After leaving Monaco at 06.40, drivers face 140.79km of competition over the five stages, before returning to the Principality at 19.23.



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