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Marcus Grönholm and Timo Rautiainen ended today's opening leg of Rallye de France in second position after a thrilling daylong battle for supremacy with arch world championship title rival Sébastien Loeb.  The BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers led throughout the morning in their Focus RS World Rally Car before the Frenchman fought back to take a slender 4.8sec advantage.

Team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen retired on the final speed test of the morning after crashing their Focus RS into a concrete block.  Although the rear of the car was badly damaged, the Finns will return tomorrow under SupeRally regulations.

The Mediterranean island of Corsica was bathed in glorious sunshine as the 74 starters left the rally base in Ajaccio this morning.  This 13th round of the FIA World Rally Championship is characterised by twisty asphalt mountain roads and today's itinerary comprised two identical loops of three speed tests south of the town.  However, the opening special stage was cancelled due to spectator congestion, leaving 106.18km of competition.

Grönholm won both remaining tests in the opening loop to return to service 2.9sec ahead of Dani Sordo with a further 1.2sec in hand over Loeb.  "The dry weather made tyre choice easy and the road conditions were consistent, which is something we didn't have a week ago in Spain," said 39-year-old Grönholm.  "Some sections were really bumpy on the old asphalt but others were smooth.  There were a lot of sections which were new to us so my pace notes weren't perfect but that was the same for everyone."

He was second fastest on all three stages this afternoon to leave the battle delicately poised going into tomorrow's second day of three.  "Loeb can't afford to relax because I will keep pushing just as hard tomorrow.  I knew I could match his times on asphalt in the dry and it's still perfectly possible to win this rally.  I made a few small mistakes on the final stage, nothing major, but they cost me a few tenths of a second on each occasion.  It's unfortunate that I can't start behind Loeb tomorrow to monitor his times but the gap is so small that we both have to drive flat out anyway," he added.

Hirvonen was fourth through the opening test but his day ended 14km after the start of the following 27.42km stage from Arbellara to Aullene.  "My pace notes were too fast for a left corner and I entered the bend too quickly.  The car slid wide towards a concrete block and I hit it just where the suspension is attached to the bodyshell.  I was lucky that the car slid rather than went straight on because there was a big drop off the edge.  I knew we weren't going to get round and the concrete blocks aren't that soft around here.

"There was a small fire because fluid dripped onto the exhaust.  The wheel was ripped off and bounced onto the roof of a house which was just below the level of the road.  It bounced back onto the mountainside before rebounding onto the wall of the house and missing the kitchen window by about half a metre.  It damaged a few tiles on the roof but the owner wasn't angry – he was quite excited by it all!" explained Hirvonen.

BP-Ford team director Malcolm Wilson said: "It was a superb day for Marcus and I'm pleased he is still in the fight for the lead.  Mikko made an uncharacteristic error but he will return tomorrow so he can build his experience of these roads and hopefully score a manufacturers' point.  The damage to the car was heavy.  The suspension mounting on the chassis was broken which required a lot of fabrication work to the mounting point before the replacement of the entire suspension system.  The rear differential was also replaced but the car is now restored to full health for tomorrow."

News from our Rivals

Sébastien Loeb (Citroen) was third after the first loop but upped his pace this afternoon to win all three stages and take the lead on the penultimate test.  Team-mate Dani Sordo held second this morning but could not match the two frontrunners this afternoon.  François Duval (Citroen) held off Petter Solberg (Subaru) in a close battle for fourth.  Duval felt his suspension was too soft this morning while the Norwegian reported his car was understeering during the same loop.  Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) lies sixth, after moving ahead of Chris Atkinson (Subaru) who had brake problems this morning and was unhappy with his car's set up this afternoon.  Nicolas Bernardi (Suzuki), debuting the Japanese manufacturer's first WRC car, retired after the first stage this afternoon when the car lost power.   

Tomorrow’s Route

The second leg takes drivers north of Ajaccio for two identical loops of three stages, split by a return to the town for service.  The roads are twistier and bumpier than those used today.  Some are new to the rally while the final test of each loop, the 13.04 journey from Vico to St Roch, has not been used since 1996.  After leaving Ajaccio at 08.00, drivers face 122.94km of competition before returning for the overnight halt at 18.58.  

Pos  Driver     Make     Time
1. Loeb Citroen 59:29.7
2. Gronholm Ford + 4.8
3. Sordo Citroen + 18.5
4. Duval Citroen + 57.8
5. P Solberg Subaru +1:03.1
6. Latvala Ford +1:06.4
7. Atkinson Subaru +1:20.6
8. Pons Subaru +1:58.0
9. Kopecky Skoda +2:47.4
10. H Solberg Ford +3:35.7

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