Reigning FIA World Rally Champion Marcus Gr?nholm has grabbed the lead of the sixth round of this year's series, the Cyprus Rally, which started from the coastal resort of Limassol this morning.

The Peugeot driver made full use of roads swept clear of dust by the earlier crews to inch clear of the Subaru of Richard Burns and Ford's Colin McRae. The title aspirations of the Finn and his pursuing pack were helped when series leader Tommi M?kinen slid off the road and out of the event on the day's fourth stage.

Sizzling conditions and the abrasive Cyprus roads caused numerous mechanical problems for the sport's top stars, and as the temperature rose in the afternoon tyre wear became an issue on longer stages.

At Peugeot Didier Auriol's 206 WRC has been generally reliable, but the Frenchman remains less than satisfied with the car's handling. Marcus Gr?nholm's car completed the day's first two tests without problems, but by the end of SS3 his clutch was beginning to encounter glitches and he stalled on the startline of SS4 as a result. Peugeot engineers fixed the problem at the next service in Pafos, although Gr?nholm became concerned again on today's last stage. The third 206 WRC of Harri Rovanper? retired on this morning's second test, when the Finn hit a rock and broke the car's front suspension.

Marcus Gr?nholm though despite his clutch worries took the lead on today's (Friday's) second stage and held it through to the overnight halt in Limassol. The Finn's relatively low position on the road helped his cause, since earlier crews swept dust and loose gravel off the top of the road surface, giving him more traction. Didier Auriol, on the other hand, was the third car into today's stages and the 1994 World champion suffered as a result. The other 206 WRC of Harri Rovanper? set a respectable time in SS1 but on the next test, the Swedish Rally winner was forced to retire with suspension problems.

Marcus Gr?nholm said: ''Now that Tommi (Makinen) has gone there's maybe a bit more opportunity for guys like me to close the points gap on him, but that's not going to change my approach. I'm just trying to keep my own pace. The clutch problem is a bit worrying, especially at uphill hairpins because I'm afraid I might stall. It doesn't help the confidence.''

Over at Subaru Richard Burns's Impreza WRC2001 has been reliable today, but Petter Solberg and Toshihiro Arai both hit problems in their examples. Solberg's power steering failed before the day's second stage and he also struggled with a side window that kept dropping and allowing dust into the cabin. A fire on today's final stage forced the Norwegian to retire. Arai's Impreza overheated during this morning's first pair of stages and on the second, the engine management system dropped into 'safe mode' as a result. Burns's biggest problem was dust being scooped through the air intakes and into the car on acute dips.

Richard Burns though heads the challengers and was instantly on the pace this morning, although team-mate Petter Solberg grabbed his share of the limelight by setting fastest time on the day's first stage. His power steering problems dropped him down the order, but Burns has maintained a solid top-three placing throughout today's tests. He ended the day in second, just over five seconds behind Marcus Gr?nholm. Toshihiro Arai lost time with overheating but the Japanese driver was still on the fringes of the top ten.

Richard Burns said: ''It seems the Pirelli tyres are slightly better here than the Michelins, so it's going well. Position on the road has undoubtedly played a part today and we're maybe a bit high up the order for tomorrow, but I wasn't about to start playing games at the end. It's still winnable. The dust is a big problem when it comes into the car, though, because I have to back off every time. I tried to still push, but I ended up hitting a couple of banks so it's not possible.''

Meanwhile the Ford Focus WRC01s of Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae and Francois Delecour have been basically reliable today. McRae's only mechanical glitch occurred at the lunchtime regroup, when an ECU problem meant the car would not restart and he and Nicky Grist had to push it into the area. The problem was soon rectified by Ford engineers, however. Delecour, meanwhile, broke his gear lever when recovering from a small accident in SS3, while Sainz suffered a broken rear shock absorber in today's final stage.

Sainz has lost time through running second on the road (first after Tommi M?kinen retired), but Colin McRae has kept in touch with the leaders. The Scot's pace has been close to third-placed Richard Burns throughout today's stages, and he ended the day in fourth. Francois Delecour has been able to regularly match his team-mates, and the Frenchman overhauled McRae to grab third during the last pair of stages today.

Colin McRae said: ''It's been going fine today, but it's always a fine balance between performance and keeping your tyres in half-decent condition. I think we've found that on most stages today. The roads are definitely getting better, so I reckon the ideal position for tomorrow would be third or fourth, but not too far behind the leader. I think where we are is near-perfect.''

Francois Delecour added: ''I was so angry after going off that I broke the gear lever having an attack! But I'm happy enough with today - the car has felt good and I haven't really been pushing at the limit, so our speed is encouraging.''

Carlos Sainz continued: ''The position on the road is making a difference, because when you get loose gravel you get more wheelspin and then your tyres wear out more quickly. Tomorrow should be the same so hopefully we can make some of the time back.''

At Mitsubishi the three Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions have been reliable today, with only Freddy Loix reporting any mechanical concerns. The Belgian felt that his car was hard to turn into corners in SS2, a characteristic he attributed to a mixture of differential and overheating tyres. But the examples of Tommi M?kinen and Katsuhiko Taguchi ran without major problems.

World championship leader Tommi M?kinen lost a lot of time through his position on the road this morning, although clouting a rock and bending his car's right-front suspension in SS2 didn't help matters. The Finn was attempting to minimise the time damage in SS4 when he slid off the road and out of the event. Team-mate Freddy Loix was running further down the order and he moved ahead of M?kinen prior to the four-times champion's retirement. Loix held fifth as crews went back to Limassol this evening. Katsuhiko Taguchi spent time getting used to 'aggressive' differential settings that he'd borrowed from Tommi M?kinen, and the Japanese driver had a few half-spins as he acclimatised

Freddy Loix said: ''The car didn't feel so good under braking this morning but it's basically been okay. Tommi retiring is disappointing for him but now I've got to score some points for the team. I think I've found a good pace and we'll see what happens tomorrow.''

At Hyundai Kenneth Eriksson enjoyed a largely troublefree run in his Accent WRC2 today, until a loss of turbo boost in the last stage cost him three minutes. Alister McRae had even more bad luck - the Scot punctured two tyres in SS1 before another deflated in SS2. He suspected that the car's geometry had been damaged during SS1, because later in the day his front tyres went through to the canvas. Piero Liatti's Accent was generally well behaved until the day's last stage, when engine problems forced the Italian to retire.

Kenneth Eriksson made full use of swept-clean roads and good reliability to push his Hyundai into second place from today's opening stage. Although his was subsequently passed by Richard Burns, Eriksson was able to swap seconds with the Briton and rival Colin McRae. However, turbo boost problems in SS6 dropped him to eighth. Alister McRae's punctures kept the Scot outside of the top 20, while Piero Liatti concentrated on building more gravel experience of the Accent and the Italian rarely challenged the top times. Engine problems forced him out on today's last stage, however.

Kenneth Eriksson said: ''The rally is seriously hard work - the heat and hard roads just kill the tyres and in today's middle loop of stages, we had virtually no tread for the second of the pair.''

Alister McRae continued: ''I wish I could start this rally again, to be honest. The problems this morning have cost us a lot of time and while it's good to see Kenneth up there in the leading positions, I know that I could do the same if I had a clean run. I guess all we can hope for now is a bit more good luck over the next couple of days.''

Over at Skoda Armin Schwarz's Octavia WRC hit numerous problems during this morning's stages. The German had to cope with three punctures and centre differential glitches during the first pair of tests, and then his gearbox came loose in SS4 and started to activate the engine cut-off when it wasn't wanted. Bruno Thiry, meanwhile, has spent most of today adjusting his car's suspension to make it more predictable over the bumps.

Armin Schwarz is a previous winner of the Cyprus Rally but the German hit mechanical problems this morning and dropped outside of the top ten. His team-mate Bruno Thiry fared little better - punctures hurt the Belgian's efforts and dropped him to 16th. Both Skodas moved back towards the top ten this afternoon, however.

Schwarz said: ''The differential problem hurt me badly because it instantly resulted in more wheelspin, which really wrecked my tyres. We've had problems but we are still going and I think many of the people in front could still hit trouble. It's that sort of rally.''

Bruno Thiry noted: ''I don't feel I can trust the car over the bumps and under braking. It seems to keep trying to go sideways. But I've been working with the engineers to improve things and the back end is definitely better. If we can sort the front out then I'm sure we can go quicker and push towards the points.''

Of the rest mechanical problems and accidents have decimated the entry in the FIA Teams Cup for Privateers, of which the Cyprus Rally is the third round. Pasi Hagstrom (Team Toyota Castrol Finland) and Henrik Lundgaard (Team Toyota Castrol Denmark) both hit problems. Hagstrom virtually passed out at the lunchtime service through heat exhaustion, while Lundgaard didn't even make it that far - he retired while trying to reach Pafos on two wheel rims. Other Teams Cup crews to encounter difficulties included former world champion Stig Blomqvist, whose Group N Mitsubishi retired after shearing wheel nuts, and Ioannis Papdimitriou, who rolled his Peugeot 206. His car then burnt out, but it wasn't a unique problem - Hamed Al Wahaibi's Subaru had done exactly the same earlier in the day.

Hagstrom still leads the category, though, ahead of Frenchman Frederic Dor. In the Group N category for more standard cars, Uruguay's multiple category champion Gustavo Trelles holds the class lead. His task was made easier when his main rival Gabriel Pozzo lost time with fuel starvation problems.

Rally Statistics:

Starters: 80 cars (49 Group A + 31 Group N) started the rally.

Retirements: Rovanpera (FIN), M?kinen (FIN), Solberg (N), Liatti (I), Panizzi + other 19 drivers

Today: Friday 1 June:

Leg 1 started from Limassol at 08h00 and covered 520.68km, including 137.98km on 6 special stages.

Tomorrow: Saturday 2 June:

Leg 2 starts from Limassol at 08h00 and covers 375.72km, including 105.96km on 8 special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Limassol at 18h39.

Weather forecast: Staying hot and dry

Stage by stage summary:

SS1 Platres-Saittas (11.48kms)
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 9m 31.4
2. Eriksson (S) Hyundai 9m 36.7
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 9m 37.1

SS2 Foini-Koilinia (30.29kms)
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 27m 51.0
2. Eriksson (S) Hyundai 28m 02.0
3. McRae (GB) Ford 28m 06.2

Leaders after SS2:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 37m 30.0
2. Eriksson (S) Hyundai 37m 38.7
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 37m 45.6

SS3 Simou-Stavros (35.57kms)
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 31m 13.0
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 31m 15.1
3. Eriksson (S) Hyundai 31m 19.0

Leaders after SS3:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 08m 43.0
2. Eriksson (S) Hyundai 1h 08m 57.7
3. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 09m 00.7

SS4 Sell..Staktou-Panagia (19.29kms)
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 16m 37.6
2. Delecour (F) Ford 16m 58.6
3. Sainz (E) Ford 16m 59.8

Leaders after SS4:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 25m 52.5
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 26m 00.7
3. Eriksson (S) Hyundai 1h 26m 07.6

SS5 Prastio-Pachna (11.06kms):
1. Delecour (F) Ford 6m 40.2
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 6m 41.8
3. McRae (GB) Ford 6m 44.8

Leaders after SS5:
1. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 1h 32m 42.1
2. Burns (GB) Subaru 1h 32m 42.5
3. McRae (GB) Ford 1h 32m 53.5

SS6 Foini-Koilinia 2 (30.29kms)
1. Delecour (F) Ford 27m 36.8
2. Gr?nholm (FIN) Peugeot 27m 41.1
3. McRae (GB) Ford 27m 44.4

Leaders after SS6:
1. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 2h 00m 23.2
2. Burns (GB) Subaru +05.7
3. Delecour (F) Ford +11.4
4. C.McRae (GB) Ford +14.7
5. Loix (B) Mitsubishi +1m 12.1
6. Sainz (E) Ford +1m 25.7
7. Auriol (F) Peugeot +1m 52.0
8. Eriksson (S) Hyundai +2m 36.8
9. Arai (J) Subaru +2m 59.4
10. Schwarz (D) Skoda +4m 00.6