Marcus Gronholm was back in his element on the first day of Rally Australia, holding a 21-second lead over Sebastien Loeb after a day on the gravel roads of Rally Australia, the final round of the 2004 World Rally Championship.
"This has been a near-perfect start to the rally," the satisfied Finn explained. "We have been trying to go at a sensible pace all day, pushing quite hard but not taking any stupid risks either."
"(Loeb) is coming quickly behind us so we have to keep going at a good pace," Gronholm admitted. "But I am not making any changes to the car at service and I feel quite confident."
Loeb, who clinched the 2004 championship earlier in the season, did set the fastest time in his Citroen Xsara in two of the stages -- Murray North and Murray South -- but overall did not have the pace of Gronholm, and lost some time again on the final four stages.
"During recce, this part of the route was very wet, with no top coating of gravel," he explained. "Today, it was completely dry and the gravel had reappeared. I definitely feel I lost time being first on the road."
Behind the two key contenders is Gronholm's Peugeot teammate, Harri Rovanpera, who is well back in third place, 1:06 behind Gronholm. Ford's young gun Francois Duval is another 30 seconds behind Rovanpera, having lost massive time in the early stages -- 33 seconds on SS3 alone -- due to a poor suspension setup choice.
"It was a difficult start," Duval rued his start. "The set-up of the car felt too soft, but there was little we could do to alter it, so our springs and tyres were too soft all morning. With no gravel crews allowed, we had no warning of where the water was so it was quite difficult."
Beyond the SS1 results, though, Martin's engine had dropped back to three cylinders at the end of SS1 and lost oil pressure. When the team tried to restart it before SS2, they discovered that the engine had suffered serious piston damage, and Martin's rally was over.
Petter Solberg, Subaru's star driver, had to retire just three stages later when he hit a rock, breaking his steering. At the time, he was 10.8 adrift of Gronholm, and clearly in front of Loeb. The Norwegian had locked up second in the 2004 drivers' standings with both Sainz and Martin out of the competition.
"I was 5.8 kilometres from the start line on a right-hand, third-gear corner and there was a rock on the apex, which I hit and which broke the steering arm," Solberg recounted the incident. "After that we couldn't steer and went off the road on the other side. Apart from that, the car is okay."
Solberg decided to take advantage of the SupeRally restart system and came back to take the fastest times on the day's final two stages: SS8 and SS9. No points will be allowed for the Subaru driver but the popular Norwegian and 2003 champion can relax and enjoy the final two days of competitive driving.
Solberg's teammate, Mikko Hirvonen, is in fifth, 3:21 behind the leader.
With Citroen's Carlos Sainz having already withdrawn from the rally before SS1 due to a heavy recce shunt, the points positions on the leaderboard are dotted with privateer entries -- Antony Warmbold (Ford Focus WRC 02), Alister McRae (production-class Subaru Impreza WRX) and Chris Atkinson (Subaru Impreza WRX) are all holding down points positions entering the second day's stages.