Sebastien Loeb capitalised on a major gamble from Jari-Matti Latvala to grab an early advantage after the opening day of Rally Italy.

Latvala opted to start first after setting the pace in qualifying, but admitted it was a risk as he would effectively act as roadsweeper for those following given the loose surface gravel on the initial stage on Sardinia.

It was a decision that backfired badly on factory Ford driver Latvala as he finished just over 15 seconds down in his Fiesta RS on Loeb after the 28.14km Terranova stage.

Come stage two, a repeat of the opener, but under fading light and with Latvala confident of making up lost ground, the Finn conspired to slip further back due to his car sustaining a broken front-left wheel after 10 kilometres.

Ahead of the remaining three days the fight for the victory already appears to be a two-horse affair between works Citroen drivers Loeb and DS3 team-mate Mikko Hirvonen.

With Loeb wrapping up his ninth consecutive World Rally Championship title in France last time out, and with Citroen again claiming the constructors' crown, victories in the final two rallies this weekend and Spain next month are the only prizes now available.

Loeb, however, shows no signs of taking it easy as he holds a 1.1sec cushion over Hirvonen, with their nearest challenger that of Petter Solberg in his works Fiesta, the Norwegian 13.9secs adrift.

Thierry Neuville, in his DS3 for the Citroen Junior team, is a solid fourth at 26.2secs adrift, followed by Mads Ostberg in his Adapta Fiesta, with Latvala a disappointing 42 seconds off the pace.

Ostberg had been fastest through the opening three timing splits of the first stage, but hit a rock and bent the steering arm, wrecking his chances of a stage win.

M-Sport Fiesta duo Evgeny Novikov and Ott Tanak lie seventh and ninth, sandwiching Chris Atkinson in his works Mini but 89 seconds down, with Martin Prokop in his Fiesta completing the top 10 almost two minutes off the pace.