Day 1 am: Burns leads, McRae out

Richard Burns was in imperious form on the first morning of Rally New Zealand, dominating with fastest stage times on each of the opening four special stages.

Day 1 am: Burns leads, McRae out

The reigning champion started as he meant to go on, showing Peugeot team-mates Harri Rovanpera and Marcus Gronholm the way. Indeed, the closest either came to beating the Briton was Rovanpera's SS2 effort, where he tied Burns for the stage victory.

Burns has a 18.3s lead over Rovanpera, with Gronholm a further 19.5s in arrears in third place. The latter Finn struggled with hydraulic problems early on, and is perhaps more interested in collecting points to seal the championship than going all-out for victory.

However, it was not all good news for the British drivers as Colin McRae crashed out of one of his favourite events. The accident happened 1.5kms from the end of SS4 as the Ford Focus left the road and extensively damaged its radiator. Both McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist were uninjured in the incident.

McRae had run sixth entering the stage, and was in the thick of the battle to be the leading non-Peugeot driver. The 1995 champion had to win if he was to retain the slightest chance of a second title, and now has only individual wins to play for in the final two events.

Ford team-mate Carlos Sainz endured a troubled time. The Spaniard stalled on the line at the start of SS1, and later spun on SS4. He then smacked a barrier on the final Super Special and lies 10th overall. Estonian Markko Martin fared better on his first attempt at the rally and lies seventh after setting some consistent times in the third works Focus.

Surprise of the early stages was Finn Jani Paasonen, drafted in to replace the injured Alister McRae at Mitsubishi. He set the fourth fastest time through the fourth stage for the honour of best of the rest on the leaderboard. But on the two final specator-friendly Super Specials he turned a five-second advantage over Tommi Makinen into a one-second deficit by the finish of the day. From fourth overall at SS6, he is now just one tenth of a second ahead of Solberg's sixth place.

The only other high-profile retirement was Skoda's Kenneth Eriksson, who crashed out on SS2. However, team-mate Toni Gardemeister upheld the marque's honour and lies 11th overall after setting the eighth fastest time through SS4.

Hyundai pairing Freddy Loix and Juha Kankkunen lie eighth and ninth overall, the latter setting an impressive fifth fastest time through SS4.

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