World Champion Sebastien Loeb took full advantage of Petter Solberg's misfortune to lead by almost half a minute on day one of the Rally Mexico.

Solberg looked set to take the early initiative until he was forced to retire with an engine problem at the start of El Cubilete 2.

The Norwegian was ahead by 2.5 seconds when his Subaru started to lose oil.

Three-time defending champion Loeb roared ahead unchallenged in his Citroen C4 WRC, establishing a 27-second advantage over the field.

Solberg had at one stage led by as much a 7.7 seconds, but a enthralling battle with Loeb ensued in which the Frenchman won SS4, narrowing the gap further in Ortega 2.

‘It has been really good for the moment,’ said Loeb on autosport.com. ‘I'm really happy with the start we've had.

‘It's important to also be very fast on gravel. At the moment, I'm very happy with the performance, and hopefully we can continue with that tomorrow.’

Behind runaway leader Loeb, a battle is developing for the remaining top-six places.

Solberg's Australian team-mate Chris Atkinson moved up to second upon the Norwegian's retirement

Atkinson is delighted with his new Impreza WRC2007, saying: ‘We didn't like where we were last year, but the guys did an awesome effort and now we're in a position to fight for podiums again, which is nice.

‘Petter was leading and it was really unlucky what happened to him, but he'll be back stronger than ever in the next few rallies, and the whole team will be. We're working on the set-up this weekend and every stage we're improving.’

Mikko Hirvonen is 0.4s adrift of Atkinson, with Dani Sordo lying fourth and Manfred Stohl fifth.
The latter posted the fastest time of all in Ortega 2 in a superb afternoon in his OMV Kronos Citroen.

‘The afternoon was good,’ he said. ‘I got more used to the car, and I hope it continues tomorrow.’

The Austrian's performance left championship leader Marcus Gronholm down in sixth.

The Ford driver believes he made a bad tyre choice in the afternoon session after struggling against dusty surfaces in the morning.

‘After the last regroup it was not so bad, but I was still losing a lot of time,’ said Gronholm, who wrote off his victory prospects.

‘I can't do so much. I'm very low in the classification so I have to at least climb up somewhere, but I can't win this rally. In the morning, I was sweeping. In the afternoon, I was sleeping.’