Day 1: Loeb benefits from Martin spin

The Ford Focus duo of Markko Martin and Francois Duval were the fastest men on the Corsican stages this afternoon (Friday), but it is the Citroen of Sebastien Loeb that ends the day in the lead of the event, after Martin lost over 20s with a costly spin on SS4

Day 1: Loeb benefits from Martin spin

The Estonian was running at a solid pace near the end of the stage when he spun, dropping him down the order to seventh. Despite this setback, Martin put in a strong charge on the day's final two stages, setting the fastest time on each and moving back up to fifth overall. However, with the field setting remarkably close times, Martin was unable to recover too much time, and trails Loeb by 18.5s.

Loeb, who was among the top three runners on all three of the afternoon's stages, does end the day with a Focus in hot pursuit, but it is Francois Duval leading the charge. The Belgian, chasing his first WRC win, was fastest on SS4 and only 0.5s slower than Martin on SS6 to close to within 3.9s of Loeb. Unlike the Citroen star, Duval doesn't have a championship to think about, and is likely to push hard tomorrow.

Loeb, however, insists that he will be fighting hard. "We have to push," he said. "It's so close we can't do anything else."

Peugeot appear to be struggling for pace for the second asphalt rally in succession. Although Marcus Gronholm is third overall at the end of the day, he was been generally unable to challenge the pace of Loeb or the Fords - although an excellent second fastest time on SS4 has kept him in the hunt, 5.3s off the lead.

Citroen's Carlos Sainz dropped behind Gronholm over SS4 and SS5, although he did stabilise the gap with the joint-third fastest time on SS6. The Spaniard will need to up his pace if he wants to remain in the top four tomorrow, as the charging Martin is just 8.3s down the road.

Richard Burns continues to put in a solid performance in sixth position, 19.5s back from the leader, although this wouldn't be enough to prevent Loeb seizing the championship lead.

"We are closer than in Sanremo," said Burns. "It looks good, hopefully we can keep on going like this. We'll see if it rains tomorrow."

Fellow Briton Colin McRae is seventh in his Citroen, a further 9.9s down the road, while Subaru's Petter Solberg occupies eighth in his hastily-repaired Impreza.

Intriguingly, former asphalt ace Gilles Panizzi continues to struggle on an event he won last year. The Frenchman had a dismal afternoon, losing vast swathes of time on SS5 and SS6. He currently sits 11th, 1m18.8s off the lead.

Sebastien Loeb Citroen Xsara
Francois Duval Ford Focus RS WRC 03 +3.9s
Marcus Gronholm Peugeot 206 WRC +5.3s
Carlos Sainz Citroen Xsara +10.2s
Markko Martin Ford Focus RS WRC 03 +18.5s
Richard Burns Peugeot 206 WRC +19.5s
Colin McRae Citroen Xsara +29.4s
Petter Solberg Subaru Impreza WRC 03 +43.8s

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Day 1am: Martin seizes early advantage

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