SS3: Gronholm in front

An astonishingly close battle for the lead is taking place on the first morning of the Swedish Rally, with Marcus Gronholm, Sebastien Loeb and Petter Solberg covered by just 0.2s after SS3

SS3: Gronholm in front

Solberg set the pace on the opening two stages, opening a small gap over Loeb while Gronholm - lacking a little confidence - ran fourth behind impressive local privateer Daniel Carlsson in a Bozian-run Peugeot 307.

Then Gronholm's fastest time on SS3 Torntop 1 vaulted him up the order, while a comparatively slow time by Solberg brought him back into Loeb's clutches. This means that after nearly half an hour of competitive action a paltry 0.2s covers the last three world rally champions as they fight for the top three positions.

Solberg blamed a post SS2 set-up change for his slump from a clear lead to a very close third.

"Everything came quite easily this morning, there was no crazy attack," he said. "After the second stage I played with the clicks (suspension settings) a little bit and went absolutely the wrong way. The car was set too hard for stage three."

Carlsson's podium hopes ended when a spin and subsequent suspension damage cost him a minute on Torntop. The Swede had to drive around 13kms with only three functioning wheels on his Peugeot, but made it to service and still has a chance of getting back into the points.

That incident elevated Mitsubishi star Gigi Galli into a praiseworthy fourth place. The relatively inexperienced Italian is 23s ahead of his team-mate Harri Rovanpera, the winner of this event in 2001.

"I'm very happy and I have fantastic feeling with the car," said Galli. "But at the same time we're only at the start of the event, there's a long way to go."

Markko Martin lost ground with a quick rotation on SS1 but has picked up the pace since and is now fifth on the rally he led for so long last year. The new Peugeot signing remains uncomfortable with the handling of his 307 WRC however.

DTM champion Mattias Ekstrom heads the Skoda trio in seventh overall, Jani Paasonen having been top Fabia driver initially only to drop out of his initial top five position when he stalled at the start of SS2 and lost 10s.

The three factory Fords are running just ouside the top ten. Henning Solberg slowed when an oil temperature warning light began to flash and Roman Kresta has been held back by his lack of Swedish experience, but Toni Gardemeister is puzzled by the handling problems that have cost him time this morning.

"We were sliding all over the road, even on the straight sections," he said. "I'm confused, because I've been driving flat-out."

Subaru's second-string drivers Stephane Sarrazin and Chris Atkinson continue to run at the foot of the top 20 as they build up experience on snow, Atkinson briefly visiting a ditch in the first stage but extracting his Impreza with minimal time lost. The driver whose place they took in the Prodrive-run team, Mikko Hirvonen was running ahead of Sarrazin and Atkinson until SS3 - when he damaged a wheel on his privately entered Ford Focus and fell to 25th.

The cars are now heading for the lunchtime service before returning to this morning's stages for a repeat run, by which time conditions may have changed somewhat. Overnight temperatures were cold enough for a good covering of compacted ice to form over the stages, making conditions suitable for snow tyres, but the weather has become warmer through the morning. Privateers tackling the stages after the factory cars have been reporting that up to 50 percent of the course was gravel by the time they passed through, and there are concerns about the condition of SS6 this afternoon.

Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot 307) 28m17.1s
Sebastien Loeb (Citroen Xsara) 28m17.2s
Petter Solberg (Subaru Impreza) 28m17.3s
Gigi Galli (Mitsubishi Lancer) 28m30.7s
Markko Martin (Peugeot 307) 28m36.2s
Francois Duval (Citroen Xsara) 28m36.6s
Mattias Ekstrom (Skoda Fabia) 28m42.2s
Janne Tuohino (Skoda Fabia) 28m45.9s
Jani Paasonen (Skoda Fabia) 28m53.3s
Harri Rovanpera (Mitsubishi Lancer) 28m53.4s

Roman Kresta (Ford Focus) 28m53.6s
Henning Solberg (Ford Focus) 28m54.1s
Toni Gardemeister (Ford Focus) 28m54.3s
Anthony Warmbold (Ford Focus) 29m15.1s
Chris Atkinson (Subaru Impreza) 29m26.0s
Stephane Sarrazin (Subaru Impreza) 29m37.9s

Galli's "near perfect" day

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