BP Ford team leader Marcus Gronholm heads the pack at the end of the opening leg of the Rally New Zealand, the eleventh round in the 2007 FIA World Rally Championship.

Despite suffering from the 'flu, Gronholm blitzed his rivals on the first stage of the day, the 18.31 kilometre-run through Pirongia West 1, completing the test in 13 minutes 40.5 seconds - 7.2 seconds up on Sebastien Loeb, who was 'best of the rest' in his Citroen C4 WRC.

Normally Gronholm would have been at a disadvantage running first on the road, as time is lost sweeping way the loose gravel, however, overnight rain left the stages muddy and this worked in the Finn's favour, binding the surface together.

The Ford man thus set the marker again in SS2 - the slippery 43.88 kilometre Waitomo stage, the longest of the event and once more he was more than 7 seconds up on Seb, who opted for tyres that were too soft. As such Marcus went into the mid-day service at Mystery Creek with a 14.8 second advantage.

In the afternoon loop, Loeb came back, but while the Frenchman won both stages, Gronholm was only fractionally slower in both SS3 and SS4 - repeats of Pirongia West and Waitomo - and as a result lost only 1.3 seconds in total.

The double world champion eventually finished the day with a 13 second cushion, having conceded another 0.5 seconds to his chief championship rival in the 3.14 kilometre Mystery Creek super special, SS5, which concluded the day's action and which incidentally was won by Chris Atkinson.

Mikko Hirvonen meanwhile was third fastest in all four 'proper' tests, but like everyone else, lost considerable time to his BP Ford team-mate in the first loop. The 27-year-old felt he had went for the wrong tyres early on and as a result is now someway off the top two - 49.2 seconds behind Marcus and 36.2 seconds behind Loeb.

Atkinson was next up for Subaru, on target to finish in the top five and achieve his pre-event objective.

The Aussie was fourth quickest in both SS1 and SS2, before setting the seventh and fifth best times on the repeat runs. With Jari-Matti Latvala only 7.8 seconds behind though in his Stobart Ford and Dani Sordo another 4.3 seconds adrift in the #2 Citroen C4 WRC, it is still very close and the battle for fourth looks set to be tight. Indeed only 12.1 seconds covers fourth to sixth.

Petter Solberg finished the day in seventh position and despite setting the fourth fastest time in SS3 was again unhappy with the handling of his Subaru Impreza WRC.

'Hollywood' said that he was doing the best he could with the car but just didn't have the 'feeling' to be able to really push, consequently his time in the second run through Pirongia West, was the exception rather than the norm - although he was third best in the short SSS.

Petter's brother, Henning rounds out the provisional points' scorers, 28.7 seconds behind in his Ford. Henning lost a bit of time on the first test of the day with a double puncture after hitting a bank and was not pleased with the steering on his Focus, which he described as 'difficult'.

Suzuki's Junior Rally Championship runner Urmo Aava was ninth, in his privately entered Mitsubishi Lancer WRC05. The Estonian conceded that he was finding it tough on the tests and finished up more than a minute off Henning.

Stobart Ford 'third' Matthew Wilson was next up in tenth, the Englishman having had a bad start, after going off on the first stage. Wilson damaged his car's bonnet in the incident in SS1 which then bounced open on and off throughout the following stage and cost him a fair bit of time.

Of the other 'works' drivers, Munchi's Ford's Federico Villagra lies in eleventh, while his team-mate and team leader, Luis-Perez Companc finished the day outside the top twenty.

Companc, like Wilson, went off in the first test of the day. However while Wilson only lost 20 seconds, Luis struggled to get back on the road and he dropped more than 6 minutes.

Subaru's Xavier Pons and OMV Kronos Citroen's Manfred Stohl were the two big retirements, both going out in the second loop.

Pons went off 3 kilometres into SS3, when he slid wide on a raised right-hand corner and left the road. The car was undamaged in the incident, but he was unable to re-join after his Impreza became beached.

Xavier subsequently blamed his pace-notes for the error and he will now re-join the fold on Saturday under the SupeRally.

Stohl meanwhile joined Pons on the sidelines on the next stage when he crashed out in his Xsara WRC. It is not yet known if the Austrian will be able re-start.

In the Production Car World Rally Championship category, Armindo Araujo ended the day in P1 in his Mitsubishi Lancer, 33.5 seconds up on Niall McShea's Impreza.

Evgeniy Vertunov completes the PWRC podium, while Fumio Nutahara, Martin Rauam and Juho Hanninen are fourth, fifth and sixth. Hanninen led after SS2, but then lost time in SS4.

The action now continues on Saturday. The second leg is the longest of the rally and is based north-west of Hamilton, with many sections hugging the spectacular Tasman Sea coastline.

After re-starting at 06.50 hours [local time], drivers tackle three tests in quick succession near Port Waikato before a second pass over the Mystery Creek super special stage. The afternoon takes competitors slightly further south for two tests based around Te Akau. They return to Hamilton for the final overnight halt at 18.29 hours [local time].