Wet weather and very muddy conditions so typical of the Rally of Great Britain reminded the 150 pairings who took the start of this final round of the FIA World Rally Championship this evening exactly what lies in store over the next three days in Wales.
As an appetiser to tomorrow's first day of action in the forests, competition began at a purpose-built floodlit super special stage in Cardiff where 20,000 fans braved the weather to watch the world's top drivers race two at a time around the jumps and flowing curves of the 2.43km track.
The trio of Ford-entered drivers made a superb start, with all three Ford Focus World Rally Cars in the top six. Ford Martini drivers Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya thrilled the fans with a spectacular performance to post third fastest time. Tapio Laukkanen and Kaj Lindstrom were fourth with the second Ford Martini car of Colin McRae and Nicky Grist sixth fastest.
"Conditions were extremely muddy, which is not surprising after all the rain of the past few days," said McRae. "It was good entertainment for the crowds but the rally starts for real when we go into the forests in the morning."
Laukkanen completed the stage with a cracked windscreen after a stone was thrown up by the car of German Armin Schwarz, whom the Ford driver was racing against, on the very first bend of the test.
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Finns Juha Kankkunen (Subaru) and private entrant Janne Tuohino were tied at the top of the standings, 0.3sec ahead of Sainz. Behind the top two Fords came Norway's Petter Solberg (Subaru) with brother Henning seventh, just behind McRae. World Championship rivals Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) and Richard Burns (Subaru) were 13th and 14th respectively but such was the closeness of the competition that just 1.7sec covered the top 10 cars.
The opening leg is the longest of the four-day rally, drivers spending more than 14 hours behind the wheel and covering almost 590km. They will tackle eight forest special stages in south and mid-Wales covering 128.36km, the last test in darkness. Drivers leave Cardiff at 06.30 and return at 20.57.