Sebastien Loeb leads the Catalunya Rally after three stages, as running first on the road proved to be less of a disadvantage than the dust clouds his pursuers encountered.
Championship leader Loeb (Citroen) found conditions predictably slippery as he opened the stages this morning, but dust hanging in the air left his rivals struggling with major visibility issues.
That allowed Loeb to win the first stage of the weekend by seven seconds, and though the dust issue was slightly less severe on SS2 and SS3, the champion heads for service with a 5.3-second lead over Ford's Jari-Matti Latvala and 11.9sec over the second Citroen of Sebastien Ogier.
Ford's title contender Mikko Hirvonen and Mini's Dani Sordo struggled particularly badly with dust, leaving Hirvonen 36.5sec adrift of the lead in fourth, and Sordo – considered a victory threat on his home event after his performance in France – a minute down in fifth.
Sordo's teammate Kris Meeke held fifth early on, deliberately starting SS1 late to allow the dust to clear a little as he felt the potential time gain was worth the 10sec penalty. He then lost some ground with a spin on SS2, before taking sixth from Mads Ostberg (Stobart Ford) on SS3.
Petter Solberg is already out after going off and removing a wheel from his Citroen on the opening stage, while Kimi Raikkonen parked his Ice 1 Citroen on SS3 with reported engine problems. He had been running 18th.
The field now has a long break before SS4, with today's second loop running into darkness. Organizers have announced that the gaps between cars on this afternoon's stages will be increased from three minutes to four to try to combat the dust problems.
Leading positions after SS3:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Sebastien Loeb Citroen 52m28.9s
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Ford + 5.3s
3. Sebastien Ogier Citroen + 11.9s
4. Mikko Hirvonen Ford + 36.5s
5. Dani Sordo Mini + 57.4s
6. Kris Meeke Mini + 1m24.6s
7. Mads Ostberg Stobart Ford + 1m32.5s
8. Henning Solberg Stobart Ford + 1m48.6s
9. Evgeny Novikov Novikov Citroen + 2m19.0s
10. Matthew Wilson Stobart Ford + 2m53.1s