Sebastien Loeb leads World Rally title rival Mikko Hirvonen by 0.7sec at the end of the opening afternoon of Rally GB.
Citroen driver Loeb has an eight-point advantage over Hirvonen (Ford) heading into this weekend's finale, and moved into the lead on the first forest stage, Clocaenog.
"It was OK, but very, very tricky," said Loeb. "A lot of mud and the grip is changing at every corner."
It was Hirvonen who was quickest of all on the Clocaenog stage, making up for a small time loss on the opening runs through the asphalt Great Orme test to get back to within a few tenths of Loeb.
"It's been a good start," said Hirvonen. "It's quite tricky with the light, it's surprisingly dark in the forest. But I'm quite happy with that time."
Hirvonen's teammate Jari-Matti Latvala had led after Great Orme, but was 6.3sec off the pace on Clocaenog.
"I wasn't maybe having the best feeling on this stage," Latvala admitted. "It felt like the road was getting more and more slippery but it was a good start."
Loeb is the only works Citroen still running, as his teammate Sebastien Ogier crashed on Great Orme (see separate story). Petter Solberg holds fourth in his private Citroen, 11.9sec off the lead.
The Minis complete the top six, with Kris Meeke establishing himself in fifth – 6.8sec behind Solberg and 8.6 in front of teammate Dani Sordo, who holds a narrow advantage over the Fords of Mads Ostberg and Ott Tanak. S2000 graduate Tanak was sixth fastest on Clocaenog – an impressive performance by both the top-class newcomer and the DMACK tires he is using.
Evgeny Novikov completed Great Orme in seventh overall in the Abu Dhabi-branded third works Ford usually driven by Khalid Al Qassimi, but lost 50 seconds on SS3 and dropped out of the top 10.