Video: Gary Grattan reports from
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Sebastien Loeb was quick to establish himself at the top of the leaderboard today when Rally Ireland began in earnest from Sligo.
The Citroen ace may have lost out by a fraction of a second to his Ford rival for the World championship Marcus Gronholm in the stunning setting of the Stormont super special stage last night but he shot to front when 'real' rally hit the border back roads today.
The World champion was fastest on the first stage of the day at Geevagh near Sligo - and his Citroen team-mate Dani Sordo slotted into second, pushing Gronholm back to third.
But Loeb finished the stage complaining that he had damaged the rear suspension of the C4 and with just a five second lead over title rival Gronholm (and four ahead of Sordo), he feared he would struggle over the next two stages before it could be repaired at service.
Mikko Hirvonen in the second M-Sport Ford was up to fourth, followed by the Subarus of Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson and then Finn Jari-Matti Latvala in the first of the Stobart Fords.
Kris Meeke was the leading privateer in eighth place in his Subaru, 21 seconds behind Loeb and dropping five positions after his superb display in front of a huge crowd at Stormont.
Like everyone else, he was astonished at how difficult the Geevagh stage had been. "I have never seen conditions like this in my life before - mud everywhere," he said. "It would be so easy to drop the car in a ditch."
Further back, Eammon Boland was next best of the Irish in 15th place with Tim McNulty in 16th in their Subarus. Irish tarmac champion Eugene Donnelly was back in 18th in his Skoda Fabia and Andrew Nesbitt 19th in his Subaru.
It had all begun in such spectacular fashion last night in a floodlit Stormont where Gronholm had drawn first blood by beating Loeb in the head-to-head duel around the opening super-special. But the driver who had the packed grandstands on their feet was Meeke. He was third fastest, kicking himself for making a slip that cost him the outright lead.
"I made a small mistake and it cost me about a second, maybe a second and a half - and Marcus and Sebastien beat me by a second," he said.
"I was just a little bit too quick into a section down by the castle and the nose started to slide. "Still, I'm well pleased. The stage, the setting, the atmosphere - it was just amazing."
In fact, Meeke had the honour of leading off the rally, he and Gareth Machale setting the rally in motion in a blaze of flashbulbs. And it was Meeke who won that particular head-to-head, beating MacHale's Subaru by a comfortable five seconds with a time of one minute 31.8 seconds.
And his time was stand top of the leaderboard as pairs of drivers streamed up and over the start line and out around the figure of eight stage, passing over and under the Creagh Bridge.
But no one could beat it. Not Solberg or Atkinson or Sordo or Mikko Hirvonen.
It wasn't until the Citroen C4 of Loeb and the Ford Focus of Gronholm arrived to play out their personal duel for the World title that Meeke was toppled.
And Gronholm showed he hasn't come to Ireland to capitulate to Loeb, the tarmac master, by edging out the champion by nine-10ths of a second. Meeke was just one-10th behind the C4 he had helped Citroen develop last year.