Day 1: Gronholm's 'surprise' lead

Marcus Gronholm says he doesn't like the Monte Carlo Rally, but you'd be very hard-pressed to work that out from his performance on Day One of the 2003 event.

Day 1: Gronholm's 'surprise' lead

The World Champion grabbed the initiative from the outset and held the lead all day, having won three of Friday's six stages. The only man who looks able to give him a serious run for his money over the final two days is Citroen's Sebastien Loeb. Another Citroen, that of Colin McRae, lies in third.

Today was the longest day of the entire event, making up nearly half of the total competitive mileage. Conditions were snowy in the morning, and Gronholm pushed hard to build up a considerable lead by first service.

He pushed hard, but his position running first on the road also helped him. Drivers further down the order complained of snow being pulled onto the road by cars further ahead cutting corners.

McRae was his closest challenger up until a lengthy spin on SS4 which dropped him from second to fourth. He said his new Citroen was as good as he expected, but there wasn't much he could do about Gronholm.

McRae's indiscretion promoted Subaru's Petter Solberg to second (despite the Norwegian's 15-second excursion into a bridge parapet on SS4) but the rally was turned on its head after the first run through Monte Carlo's longest stage - the 47.27 kilometres of Plan de Vitrolles.

Solberg slid off on some standing water (caused by melting snow) and hit a bridge - hard enough to put him out of the rally. His team-mate Tommi Makinen also retired on the same stage after going off. The damage to Makinen's Subaru was slight, but it was so effectively beached that there was no option but for the entire Prodrive team to pack up and go home.

So Sebastien Loeb moved up to second, having set two fastest stage times to close to within 40 seconds of Gronholm before the final stage. He was stunning through that crucial final test (a re-run of Plan de Vitrolles, this time in the dark) and posted joint fastest time with McRae. This was despite a spin.

"I'm really happy," said Loeb. "I felt comfortable in drier conditions and anything is possible tomorrow." Gronholm said the opposite. "I'm quite surprised to be in the lead," he commented. "I don't have so much experience on dry asphalt tyres."

Richard Burns was fourth after a clean, mistake-free run and in good shape to pounce tomorrow. "It's difficult to know how to judge the conditions," he said. "But we wanted to be in the top six on day one and we've achieved that. I'm happy enough."

Citroen's Carlos Sainz and Ford's Markko Martin completed the top six. Sainz described his day as "a bit Paris-Dakar" after a number of spins as he learnt his new Citroen Xsara.

Martin though was a star, regularly setting top six times, despite only limited testing on Michelin tyres. The other Fords of Francois Duval and Mikko Hirvonen were 10th and 13th. The highlight of Duval's day was ripping a rear wheel off five kilometres from the end of SS4. But the Focus limped back to service and lived to fight another day...

The much-fancied Peugeot of Gilles Panizzi had a torrid ordeal on the opening stages after making an incorrect tyre choice. He was just about the only driver to choose tyres without studs for the first two stages. The Peugeot driver battled with set-up problems all day, finishing the day a dejected 14th.

Skoda's Toni Gardemeister was the first retirement of the day, after his engine lapsed onto three cylinders at the end of SS1. It died completely a few kilometres into SS2. Gardemeister's new team-mate Didier Auriol was enjoying his return to the driving seat after a year's sabbatical, but found many of the stages tough going. He ended the day 11th.

Hyundai were suffering from lack of testing before the event, which meant that the drivers lacked confidence in their cars. "The car feels very strange to me," said Freddy Loix, and his comments were backed up by team-mate Armin Schwarz. They struggled to find a set-up all day, finishing 12th and 8th respectively

Day 1am: Gronholm holds power

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