Day 1am: Loeb builds early lead

Sebastien Loeb has flown on the first morning of the Senremo Rally, building a substantial lead of nearly 20 seconds on the first three stages of the event. His closest opposition on the asphalt roads so far has come from Marcus Gronholm, while championship leader Richard Burns has struggled

Day 1am: Loeb builds early lead

Citroen star Loeb set the fastest time on the fog-covered first two stages, including a stunning run on SS2 that was nearly 15 seconds faster than anybody else. He was only second fastest on SS3, but still outpaced his closest challenger to increase his lead over Gronholm to 19.8s.

"I'm pushing hard and the car feels good," he said. "I think we can carry on like this."

While Loeb's asphalt pace comes as little surprise, the fact that Gronholm has emerged as his closest rivals so far will raise a few eyebrows. The reigning champion was third fastest on SS1 and second quickest on SS2, although he was a long way behind Loeb. He dropped to fifth fastest on SS3, but is still showing up several traditional asphalt experts.

The latest-spec Ford Focus WRC has proven to be as quick as predicted on asphalt, with Francois Duval and Markko Martin currently third and fourth, the Belgian leading his team-mate by just 1.4s. Duval flew from the outset of the rally, setting the second quickest time on SS3, just 0.5s behind Loeb. By contrast, Martin was slowed by overheating problems on the opening two stages - caused by leaves blocking his Ford's radiator - but rebounded in style to set the fastest time on SS3.

Gilles Panizzi, Peugeot's renowned asphalt ace, is in fifth after a tough morning, having so far been humbled by team-mate Gronholm. The Frenchman was close to the leader's pace on SS1 and 3, but he dropped 31.8s on SS2, having reported that his car was very nervous to drive.

Title contender Carlos Sainz sits sixth in the second Citroen, 37.5s off team-mate Loeb. Colin McRae is a further 4.2s behind in the third work's Xsara. Petter Solberg, another man in contention for the championship, lies eighth, the final points paying position.

However, it is the performance (or rather, lack of) of championship leader Richard Burns that could have a huge impact on the championship leaderboard. The Briton has struggled for pace on the opening morning, and is currently 12th overall, a massive 1m24.5s off the lead after just three stages.

"The problem is that I've got no confidence in me or the car," he said. "I don't really know why. But in the worst-case scenario that Seb wins, then I'm still in the lead of the championship with him. So it's not the end of the world."

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