Burns overshadowed as McRae leads challenge

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Colin McRae overshadowed the world champion, Richard Burns, to lead the British challenge as safety precautions were rigorously enforced in the 70th Monte Carlo Rally yesterday.

The 33-year-old ended the first day in the French Alps handily placed in third in his Ford Focus with Burns, on his Peugeot debut, battling to stay in points contention in seventh.

Frenchman Sebastien Loeb, last year's world junior champion, leads comfortably for Citroen with Tommi Makinen second on his Subaru debut as he chases a fourth victory in a row in the event.

Organisers were forced to cancel one of the day's five special stages because there were too many spectators on the mountain roads – fulfilling the pre-event warning from Max Mosley, president of the world governing body, FIA. Mosley had said no stage would be allowed to go ahead if fans were standing in unauthorised areas.

The policy is as a result of an incident in last November's Network Q Rally of Great Britain when 13 people were injured after being hit by the Ford Focus of Spain's Carlos Sainz.

Spectators who had made the trek to the mountain roads above Monaco were annoyed at the cancellation of the second stage with several stones being hurled at officials' cars.

François Delecour, the French veteran, said scrapping stages was inevitable with rallies becoming more compact to meet the demands of television. "The number of spectators is increasing, and on a single day there are not enough stages to accommodate them all," he said.

The cancellation caught out several teams who had opted for tyres that were suited to the snow on that particular stage, with Burns' Peugeot outfit particularly affected.

Burns went off the road on the first stage, lost further time on the third and only forced his way into the top 10 on the penultimate stage. He finished the opening and longest day of the rally one minute 46 seconds behind Loeb.

McRae gave a consistently fast performance but still finished almost 45secs adrift of Loeb. The Scot would have been closer but for going into a ditch on the penultimate stage after hitting an icy patch.

MONTE CARLO RALLY Leading positions after four stages: 1 S Loeb (Fr) Citroen 59min 22.3sec; 2 T Makinen (Fin) Subaru 5.3sec behind; 3 C McRae (GB) Ford +7.3sec; 4 M Gronholm (Fin) Peugeot +19.6; 5 P Solberg (Nor) Subaru +25.3; 6 C Sainz (Sp) Ford +37.6; 7 R Burns (GB) Peugeot +59.6; 8 F Delecour (Fr) Mitsubishi +1:07.7; 9 H Rovanpera (Fin) Peugeot +1:16.4; 10 T Gardemeister (Fin) Skoda +1:28.5.