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Gronholm Stays Ahead of Loeb

Marcus Gronholm edged out a small gap over Sebastien Loeb at the end of Leg One of a wet Rally Finland as the battle for victory intensified

Gronholm extended his lead to 5.8 seconds as both he and lunchtime rivals Loeb and Petter Solberg took a stage win each on the final three of the Leg.

However, Solberg dropped to fifth overall after a nightmare SS8, the second running of the 13.96-km stage of Mokkipera.

Early in the test Solberg left the road and sustained rear-end damage to the Impreza, including the loss if its boot lid and rear spoiler. The main implication of the damage was a lack of aerodynamic efficiency at the rear of the car, which contributed to a nose-heavy landing at a jump later in the stage, five km before the finish line.

Upon landing, Solberg slid into a ditch, where the car continued along for more than 100 metres, collecting bodywork damage from rocks and trees. The Norwegian re-joined the road and powered the battered Subaru across the line in the 15th fastest time, 20 seconds off stage winner Loeb.

Gronholm made a stellar start to his home event in the Peugeot 307 WRC, handling the wet conditions admirably and winning three of the day's opening four stages.

However, the Finn hit trouble when his co-driver Timo Rautiainen injured his back during a jump on SS5. Despite Rautiainen being winded, Gronholm was fastest in the stage.

The same problem befell Sebastien Loeb's co-driver Daniel Elena.

Loeb, chasing his seventh consecutive WRC win, has never won the Rally Finland, but has been warned by Citroen team bosses to make sure he brings home manufacturer points rather than going all out for the event win.

Despite this, he won two stages, including the first stage of the day, the 24.86km stage Lankamaa.

Gronholm's Peugeot teammate Markko Martin backed up his teammate's form, on the only event his Peugeot 307 WRC has been previously victorius. The Estonian, a winner of the Rally Finland in 2003, hasn't finished on the podium since the Cyprus Rally and is 41.6 seconds behind his teammate in third.

Ford's Toni Gardemeister holds fourth, but by only 0.1 seconds from Solberg. Gardemeister, who has scored in every round of the WRC this season, is likely to relinquish the position tomorrow, when Solberg will have had his suspension repaired.

Mikko Hirvonen has done what Ford had hoped when they promoted him for his home event and is just under 20 seconds behind his teammate. The former works Subaru driver has been upgraded from his usual privateer Focus to the latest works machine after impressing on June's Acropolis Rally.

Mitsubishi's Harri Rovanpera and Citroen's Francois Duval are locked in a battle for seventh, with Duval reducing the deficit to Rovanpera by ten seconds on the last three stages. He now is 16.8 seconds behind the Finn.

Other works cars haven't faired so well on the day's eight stages. Rovanpera's Mitsubishi's teammate Gigi Galli went off the road on SS2. Despite the help of spectators recovering the Lancer, the damage to the suspension put him out for the day.

Skoda's Jani Paasonen also hit trouble on SS2, the Finn dropping nearly three minutes back from the leaders after he went off into a ditch trying to avoid Galli's Car, which was being pushed back onto the road by spectators.

After an encouraging start, Subaru's Chris Atkinson stopped 0.7 km before the end of SS4 after he clipped a rock on the apex of a left-hander. The rock caused suspension and steering damage and sidelined Atkinson for the rest of the Leg. He is expected the re-start the rally on Leg Two under the Superally rules.

Ford's Roman Kresta lost 11 minutes on SS7 after stopping with ECU problems. He now lies in 27th.

Top 20 leaderboard after Leg 1:

Pos  Driver       Make          Time     
1. Gronholm Peugeot 1:12:01.8 2. Loeb Citroen + 5.8 3. Martin Peugeot + 47.4 4. Gardemeister Ford + 51.9 5. Solberg Subaru + 52.0 6. Hirvonen Ford + 1:11.8 7. Rovanpera Mitsubishi + 1:53.0 8. Duval Citroen + 2:09.8 9. Solberg Ford + 2:24.9 10. Tuohino Skoda + 2:55.2 11. Stohl Citroen + 3:21.2 12. Sohlberg Subaru + 3:22.7 13. Lindholm Peugeot + 3:50.7 14. Schwarz Skoda + 4:19.8 15. Pons Citroen + 5:20.5 16. Kuistila Mitsubishi + 9:11.5 17. Flodin Mitsubishi + 9:20.7 18. Alen Mitsubishi + 9:35.9 19. Teiskonen Subaru + 9:46.6 20. Meeke Citroen + 10:16.2 All Timing Unofficial

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