Positive Meeke leads the Toyota charge against shock leader Loeb
Kris Meeke's Toyota team found itself out-gunned by rivals Hyundai on the opening day of Rally Spain, the penultimate round of this year's World Championship.
And in an incredible performance, it was nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, officially in semi-retirement now, who led the trio of Korean i20s at the top of the leaderboard ahead of team-mates Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo.
It was Meeke who was leading the chase in a battle that is vital for Toyota's hopes of retaining the Manufacturers' Championship, the Dungannon driver in fourth place, 13 seconds off Loeb's pace, with team-mates Ott Tanak and Jari-Matti Latvala in fifth and sixth behind him.
The Toyotas had been unable to match the speed of the Hyundais over the gravel roads of the first leg, but a storming run by Meeke through the 24-mile final stage of the day saw him set the second fastest time behind Loeb and close in on third-placed Sordo.
However, with Sebastien Ogier tumbling down the leaderboard when his Citroen suffered power steering failure and Neuville 41 points behind in the Drivers' Championship, Tanak remains on course to become world champion for the first time.
But in a major blow to Toyota, it was being widely reported in the Salou service park last night that he will quit the Tommi Makinen-run team at the end of the season and move to Hyundai.
Meeke had been down in fifth place earlier in the day but moved past the Ford of Elfyn Evan in the afternoon and overhauled Tanak to keep himself in touch with the Hyundais as the teams went to work last night to prepare the cars for the switch to Spain's ultra fast tarmac stages today and tomorrow.
"It was good to finish strongly after we had a few issues earlier in the day but I would like to have been within 10 seconds of the lead after day one to stand a real chance of winning, but let's hope our pace on tarmac is good," said Ulsterman Meeke, who won in Spain in 2017 with Citroen.