After a drama-filled first couple of stages this morning, championship protagonists Petter Solberg and Sebastien Loeb settled down at the head of the field at the end of today's six stages.

The third driver in with a shot at this year's FIA World Rally Championship drivers' crown - Carlos Sainz retired on the Trawscoed test this morning. The Spaniard slid off the road and was unable to extricate his Xsara WRC, ending his dream of a third world title.

Solberg led the event after the super special stage in Cardiff last night, however Loeb move to the top of the standings following the first two forest tests this morning. Fastest times on stages four and five were enough to power Solberg back to the front of the pack though and at the end of the second run through the Cardiff Super Special he held an 8 second advantage over Loeb.

Championship aside, there were problems aplenty for the leading crews on this sunny opening leg. Outgoing world champion Marcus Gronholm retired after SS3, having damaged the steering on his 206 when he clipped a log in a fast left-hand corner. Ford's Markko Martin was also hobbled in the third stage, the Estonian made it back to service with a seriously sick engine in his Focus. The problem could not be fixed and another potential winner retired five kilometres out of the service on the way to SS4.

Solberg's team-mate Tommi Makinen settled into third place, albeit some distance behind the leaders, but with Colin McRae hard on his heels in fourth place.

Neither Subaru Impreza WRC2003 has suffered any problems today.

Solberg ended what was, for him, an undramatic leg in the lead of the rally, having moved ahead of Loeb after the first run at Rheola test. The Subaru driver admitted he was driving with some pace in reserve and not taking too many risks. A front-right puncture five kilometres before the end of the fifth and final forest stage of the day allowed Loeb to pull 2.4s back.

"It's too early in the rally to be pushing to the limit," said Solberg, "I'm happy right now, of course. I know that there are some stories that Loeb has been told to make it to the finish for the manufacturers' title - I don't care what anybody says, he's here to win - just like I am. I didn't hit anything to get the puncture in SS6. The tyre just went straight down - at the split before we were leading, it's a shame to drop that time - but this position is good for us."

Makinen caught his ailing countryman Marcus Gronholm in the third stage of the day - dropping a few seconds before he made it past the Peugeot. Through fourth and fifth stages, Makinen felt the rear suspension on his Subaru was too soft for the drying stages. He ended the day third.

"It was quite difficult on the second loop of stages, the car was sliding quite a lot," said the Finn, "The third and fourth stages were nice, quite a bit drier than the first two. The suspension setting has been the only trouble we have had today, it's been good."

At Citroen meanwhile Loeb's Xsara WRC ran without mechanical fault. Colin McRae's car though suffered brake problems on the opening loop of stages this morning, while Sainz went off the road and into retirement on SS3.

Loeb remained in the thick of the battle for the drivers' title. Team director Guy Frequelin had pointed out to the Frenchman that it would be good for Citroen's manufacturer title aspirations if he made it to the finish. Loeb admitted that was playing on his mind - along with too harder compound of Michelin for stages four and five - when he dropped back behind Solberg. He ended the leg 8 seconds adrift.

Sainz's part in the championship battle did not last long. The Spaniard slid off on a third-gear corner in the third stage, having failed to react to the pace note call from co-driver Marc Marti. Sainz's day had started badly when the onboard camera in his Xsara caused an electrical problem, which led them to missing their start time for SS2. Penalties for this were scrubbed as the organisers deemed this to be outside the control of the crew or the team.

McRae was struggling with more brake trouble aboard his Xsara WRC. The Scot was hit with two separate problems on the first two loops of stages but recovered to close the gap to third-placed Tommi Makinen to just over 10s at the end of the day.

Sainz noted: "I heard Marc tell me it was a third-gear corner, but it simply didn't register with me - I went into the corner still in fifth. We slid off the road and that was the end. The car was not damaged, but it had slid nose first down a steep bank. There was no way we could get back. I'm so disappointed to end a rally which had offered so much in this way."

Loeb added: "After the third stage this morning things couldn't have looked better. Guy [Frequelin] did speak to me in service after those two and I think maybe it was in my mind what he had said. There was a combination of this, me feeling more tense, the wrong tyres and two very good times from Petter [Solberg]."

McRae continued: "Part of the brake problem was air in the system - just like we had in Australia. It's really not good to have a problem like this is any stages, but especially not in these really quick ones. The last stage was much better - the brake problem was sorted, it was caused by a pads and discs problem combined with a slipping centre differential."

Over at Peugeot Gronholm hit a log on the third stage this morning, breaking the steering. He retired on the following liaison section. The other two official cars of Harri Rovanpera and Freddy Loix ran without mechanical problems.

Gronholm's disappointing year ended this morning when he retired from fourth place on this final round of the championship. The Finn had cut a corner and clipped a log, damaging the suspension. He made it through the stage - having slipped from 4th to 65th after dropping 14 minutes. Fifty kilometres away from the service park, he was stopped by the police and told his car was not in a safe state to drive on the road.

Rovanpera was happy to be back in an official car for the first time in two months, but felt he was getting too much wheelspin from his 206 through the morning. Freddy Loix - standing in for Richard Burns - didn't feel totally comfortable in his Peugeot. The suspension was too stiff for the Belgian, but the required adjustments couldn't me made until the final service of the day.

Despite an even longer absence from the gravel-specification Peugeot than Rovanpera, Gilles Panizzi was putting on a fine demonstration in his Bozian-run 206, usurping the points-scoring Peugeots for much of this opening leg until Rovanpera took advantage of a Panizzi spin in Rheola 2 to clinch fifth position and top 206.

Gronholm noted: "I was maybe five centimetres off the right line, then bang we hit the log. It didn't smash the wheel or anything like that, it broke the steering and made driving the car so difficult. When we were out of the stage I thought we could make it back to service without problems. Okay it wasn't great to drive on the road, but we could have made it - the police didn't agree, though."

Rovanpera commented: "We made some set-up changes at lunchtime which helped this afternoon. I was going so hard in some of the stages today, but still not matching the times at the front - this is a little bit to do with the championship battle which Petter Solberg and Sebastien Loeb are in."

Loix added: "Today has not been an easy one for me. I am trying to be smooth with the car, but it's hard work. Because of the suspension settings, I'm finding it quite hard to get any grip on turn-in or under braking. Unfortunately the changes we want to make to the suspension is not just a matter of a click-click here or there."

Panizzi noted: "I haven't driven on gravel since Cyprus, so today it has not been so easy. I don't have total confidence in the car - I am pushing at the maximum, but with the car set-up like it is, it's really hard to get it to do what I want. Stage six was better I had more confidence with everything, we'd changed some shock absorbers before the stage and it worked better."

Ford's Markko Martin retired on the way to the fourth stage this morning, when his Focus RS WRC03 succumbed to an engine problem. The sister car of Francois Duval hit centre differential trouble on SS5, while Mikko Hirvonen went off the road on the third stage.

Martin noticed an engine problem mid-way through the opening test this morning. The oil and water temperatures started to rise and continued to do so throughout the stage, peaking at 157 degrees. They completed the Trawscoed test with no water at all, dropping only five seconds in the stage - and maintained third place, just 12.1 seconds off the lead. Unfortunately the problem couldn't be rectified in service; Martin retired five kilometres out of Felindre.

Duval held seventh place having run through stages he didn't know this morning and then suffering from transmission problems later in the day.

Martin said: "It is very disappointing to go out so early on this event. We never got a clean stage to look at the times, but I know we could have won here. Now I'm going to go home and take a break from rallying; I'm quite tired after such a busy end to the season."

Duval added: "I'm getting good experience of the roads today, conditions are really tricky - finding where the mud can be slippery, is a hard job. The centre diff problem made the car handle like a rear-wheel-drive car, turning in and braking it was particularly difficult."

Hirvonen continued: "It was my fault. I hit a rock on a straight section just before bend, this ripped off the left rear wheel. We had to go into the next corner sideways because we had no brakes, the car slid off the road and slowly rolled. The spectators got the car onto its wheels again, but with no brakes and not enough wheels we couldn't carry on."

At Skoda meanwhile Didier Auriol has suffered handling problems on his Fabia, while Toni Gardemeister's car was hit by engine, suspension and transmission problems.

Skoda suffered a troubled first day of Rally GB. Gardemeister's car arrived in service following SS3 with no water after the temperature had risen to 130 degrees. Gardemeister dropped 2m10s in penalties as the team fixed the problem. On the final forest stage of the day, the Finn felt the car had broken a front driveshaft on the way out of service.

Auriol couldn't find a set-up he was happy with throughout the first day. Through SS6 the Frenchman said it felt like the centre differential had broken. Auriol was 14th overnight, while Gardemeister was 18th after dropping five minutes with the transmission problem.

Auriol said: "This has been a very difficult day. The car wasn't right, but then at the start of SS6 it felt good. It felt good for 21km, then it was finished. It did not work after that. We have some work to do to get it right for tomorrow."

Gardemeister noted: "I had so many problems today. The engine thing was bad, but then we had the penalties - I was so angry in the next stage - I was completely over-driving. Then the driveshaft goes and we are in a rear-wheel drive car. Tomorrow must be better, we can't have any more problems."

Of the other entries Suzuki driver Daniel Carlsson leads the way in the FIA Junior World Rally Championship standings. The Swede has a narrow lead over Kris Meeke's Opel Corsa. The Ulsterman - who led early on - survived a big sixth-gear moment mid-way through the day.

In the race for the championship, Brice Tirabassi remains in pole position. The Renault driver is comfortably ahead of Salvador Canellas who suffered a broken gearbox - and the dropped 40s of road penalties trying to fix the fault in time.

Rally statistics - Leg 1:

Starters: 75 crews (53 Group A and 22 Group N) started this morning.

Top retirements: Gronholm (FIN), Martin (EE), Hirvonen (FIN), Sainz (E), Eriksson (S), Feghali (RL), Wilks (GB).

Today - Friday 7 November: Leg 1 re-started from Cardiff at 05h30 and covered 638.28km, including 164.24km on seven stages.

Tomorrow - Saturday 8 November: Leg 2 starts from Cardiff at 05h00 and covers 582.62km, including 138.71km on eight stages. The first car is expected to arrive back in Cardiff at 20h13.

Weather forecast: Cloudy in the morning, with rain arriving in the afternoon.

Stage by stage summary - Leg 1:

SS1 Cardiff Super Special 1 (2.45kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 2m 08.7
2. Martin (EE) Ford 2m 10.1
3. Gronholm (FIN) Peugeot 2m 10.5

SS2 Brechfa (23.12kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 13m 19.6
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 13m 24.2
3. Martin (EE) Ford 13m 28.0

Leaders after SS2:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 15m 31.6
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 15m 32.9
3. Martin (EE) Ford 15m 38.1

SS3 Trawscoed (27.97kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 16m 23.4
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 16m 25.9
3. Martin (EE) Ford 16m 29.0

Leaders after SS3:
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 31m 55.0
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 31m 58.8
3. Martin (EE) Ford 32m 07.1

SS4 Rheola 1 (32.58kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 17m 58.6
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 18m 07.1
3. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 18m 15.8

Leaders after SS4:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 49m 57.4
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 50m 02.1
3. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 50m 55.7

SS5 Resolfen 1 (43.09kms):
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 22m 40.9
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 22m 44.0
3. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 23m 02.8

Leaders after SS5:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 12m 38.3
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 12m 46.1
3. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 1h 13m 58.5

SS6 Rheola 2 (32.58kms):
1. Loeb (F) Citroen 17m 50.9
2. Solberg (N) Subaru 17m 52.5
3. McRae (GB) Citroen 17m 53.2

Leaders after SS6:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 30m 30.8
2. Loeb (F) Citroen 1h 30m 37.0
3. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 1h 32m 01.9

SS7 Cardiff Super Special 2 (2.45kms):

1. Solberg (N) Subaru 2m 06.4
2. Makinen (FIN) Subaru 2m 07.5
3. McRae (GB) Citroen 2m 09.2

Leaders after SS7 / Leg 1:
1. Solberg (N) Subaru 1h 32m 37.2
2. Loeb (F) Citroen +8.0
3. Makinen (FIN) Subaru +1m 32.2
4. McRae (GB) Citroen +1m 43.6
5. Rovanpera (FIN) Peugeot +2m 41.2
6. Panizzi (F) Peugeot +2m 49.3
7. Duval (B) Ford +3m 35.2
8. Kresta (CZ) Peugeot +4m 05.2
9. Loix (B) Peugeot +4m 20.3
10. Stohl (A) Peugeot +4m 48.3



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