Ford Martini drivers and FIA World Rally Championship leaders Colin McRae and Nicky Grist delighted their British fans by taking an early lead in the Rally of Great Britain tonight at the wheel of their Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.

A capacity 10,000 fans braved chilly evening weather to watch the spectacular beginning to the event in Cardiff. After a city centre start ceremony, the action began almost immediately with a 2.45km super special stage in which two cars at a time raced head-to-head over a floodlit purpose built track in the city itself.

Four drivers and two manufacturers started this 14th and final championship round capable of claiming the respective titles. So the action was fast and furious from the start as the title chasers turned on a thrilling performance over the jumps and through the watersplash to warm up the crowd.

McRae was 0.1sec faster than Petter Solberg (Subaru) with Ford Martini team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya third in their Focus RS. Mark Higgins and Bryan Thomas, driving a third Focus RS on their debut for the team, were 13th fastest. Such was the pace of the leading cars that just 2.5sec covered leader McRae to tenth-placed Richard Burns (Subaru), McRae’s main championship rival.

“It’s nice to give Richard something to sleep on but the real action begins out in the forests tomorrow morning,” said McRae. “The stage was fun and good entertainment for the spectators – a nice warm-up for the morning.” None of the top drivers encountered any problems, although Harri Rovanperä (Peugeot) lost a few seconds when co-driver Risto Pietilainen inadvertently turned off his car’s fuel pump when trying to find the windscreen de-mist switch.

The opening leg continues tomorrow when the cars re-start from Cardiff at 06.00. They face seven forest special stages in south Wales covering 137.26km before returning to the Welsh capital at 20.12

Leaderboard after stage 1
1. C McRae/N Grist GB Ford Focus RS 2min 10.1sec
2. P Solberg/P Mills N Subaru Impreza 2min 10.2sec
3. C Sainz/L Moya E Ford Focus RS 2min 10.8sec
4. M Grönholm/T Rautiainen FIN Peugeot 206 2min 11.2sec
5. G Panizzi/H Panizzi F Peugeot 206 2min 11.5sec
6. D Auriol/D Giraudet F Peugeot 206 2min 11.8sec
7. A McRae/D Senior GB Hyundai Accent 2min 12.1sec
8. K Eriksson/S Parmander S Hyundai Accent 2min 12.5sec
9. M Martin/M Park EE Subaru Impreza 2min 12.5sec
10 R Burns/R Reid GB Subaru Impreza 2min 12.6sec

-Ford Rallye Sport-