Day 1: Duval takes lead

Ford's Francois Duval has stormed his way past team-mate Markko Martin on the final two stages of the first leg of this weekend's Rallye de France to take an overnight lead of 15.1s over the Estonian. Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has maintained his third spot while defending champion Petter Solberg has dropped to seventh

Day 1: Duval takes lead

Duval began the rally clearly on a mission - he topped the times on Thursday's shakedown and stormed through the first stage of leg one on Friday morning beating his team-mate by over 4s. Not to be outdone by the Belgian, Martin stamped his authority on the second test clearing Duval by 8s while the nearest non-Ford challenger, Loeb, was over 37s off the Estonian's pace.

During the service break Martin claimed he had chosen a perfect set-up and was enjoying pushing his car to the limit. Duval, meanwhile, explained that his drop in pace on the second stage was down to the clipping of a wall 5kms into the test which briefly slowed him while he checked his car had not been damaged.

Sure enough, the Belgian was back on form in the third test, the second run through the 32.89km Ampaza to St Eustache stage, while Martin could only manage the sixth quickest time to gift his team-mate the overall lead by 14.1s.

Despite Citroen team boss Guy Frequelin urging Loeb to take it easy this weekend in order to secure the championship, the Frenchman seemingly had his earplugs in already and clinched the first non-Ford stage win of the rally so far over the 27.78km Aullene to Arbellera 2. His time, 8.5s quicker than second-placed Duval, was enough to elevate him to third overall ahead of Carlos Sainz and puts him in prime position to take the championship should he stay where he is.

"The roads are drier than expected," Loeb said. "I chose cut slick tyres as information was that the roads were 60 percent damp on this stage. This proved to be a bad choice, as the roads were almost totally dry. It really damaged my tyres. The Fords have really made an excellent start to the rally, but I'm not focusing on their performance."

The only man that can now prevent Loeb from taken his first WRC title, is defending champion Petter Solberg, but the Norwegian needs to win this rally and have Loeb finish no higher than fifth to keep the title alive. The Subaru ace will have to pull something out of the bag on leg two, though, for he is currently languishing in seventh place over two minutes off the pace. His position is by no means secure either for Stephane Sarrazin (Subaru) is only 14s behind the Norwegian who is likewise being chased hard by Alex Bengue (Peugeot) in ninth.

"I've had a difficult afternoon, but I really don't have any explanation for what the problem is," Solberg said. "It was very slippery this morning and I had to drive cautiously according to the amount of grip I had. On the second run through, it was even worse. I'm disappointed by my gap to the leaders, but that's how it is. It's very difficult out there and I'm going to try my best. That's the only thing I can do."

Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm is fifth overall, a position he has maintained from the start of the rally while Peugeot's second points-nominated driver Cedric Robert is sixth.

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Day 1am: Martin to the fore

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