STUNNING SPEED, DISAPPOINTMENT AND DETERMINATION FOR ATKINSON AT RALLY AUSTRALIA

Subaru's Chris Atkinson has endured a day of stunning stage winning speed but mixed emotions during the opening leg of Telstra Rally Australia, the final round of the World Rally Championship, in Western Australia today.

The 25-year-old Queenslander and his West Australian co-driver Glenn Macneall jumped ahead of the field in the opening two forest stages this morning, winning both to open an 11-second lead from overnight leader and Subaru team-mate Petter Solberg.

"It was quite cool to lead your home rally. During this morning's first stage I was a bit untidy and was a little surprised by such a good time," said Atkinson.

"Throughout the day I haven't been taking any big risks, while the roads are clearing and my road position is helping me slightly but they are still quite slippery."

Unfortunately for Atkinson his charge was halted two stages later when he was slowed by a bent steering arm losing almost two and a half minutes to the leaders across two stages dropping him to 13th.

"It's very frustrating as you can expect, especially at a home event, but there was nothing I could do. It's a complete mystery as everything was going well, but then 5km into SS6 the steering wheel turned 180 and nothing happened," said Atkinson.

"It seems we had a bent steering arm but I don't remember hitting anything. It's very strange. We were able to continue but we struggled to keep the car in a straight line. We tried to make repairs before stage seven and to begin with, it felt a little better, but it quickly became worse than before.

"We had to slow down to be safe but we didn't get out of third gear. We've lost a lot of time, but we never gave up and are determined to make the time up over the remainder of the event."

Determined to make up for lost time Atkinson returned to the rally following the replacement of the right front steering arm and driveshaft during the afternoon service setting the fastest time on two of the four stages contested and claw his way back inside the top ten.

After dominating the year Loeb will not be sealing his second Championship year with another victory after running wide near the end of the final forest stage hitting a tree on the outside of a fast left hand corner in his Citroen Xsara ending his event, both Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elana were uninjured.

Another leading contender who has been forced out during the opening day is Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm. The Finn's hopes of finishing on the podium and sealing runner-up in the Championship were dashed when he endured suspension problems on stage seven and was forced out of the event.

After the opening leg Solberg leads by 46-seconds from Citroen's Francois Duval and Colin McRae in a Skoda.

Atkinson will be out to bridge the gap between him and his rivals over tomorrow's nine stages and is confident of moving up the order.

"We have shown we can win stages and can match the best guys in the world and beat them, it is just frustrating that we had the problem that cost us two and a half minutes. We are only one minute twenty off second place so we are just going to go for it now," said Atkinson.

"We will be going flat out to the end, it is not going to be easy but we are going to give it a shot."

Telstra Rally Australia continues tomorrow with a further nine stages across 122 competitive kilometres.

-car-