Belfast Telegraph

Meeke hogs spotlight in Stormont spectacular

By Sammy Hamill

It was first blood to Marcus Gronholm in his battle with Sebastien Loeb as Rally Ireland began amid the spectacular setting of a floodlit Stormont last night.

But the driver who had the packed grandstands on their feet was an Ulsterman - Kris Meeke.

The 27-year-old from Dungannon was third fastest in his privately-entered Subaru, beaten only by the World championship leader and the World champion himself.

Down the leaderboard behind Meeke were the works Subarus of former World champion Petter Solberg, Chris Atkinson and Spaniard Xavier Pons as well as Dani Sordo, his pal from their days together in the Citroen Junior World championship team, and now Loeb's No.2.

However, a delighted Meeke was still kicking himself for making a small mistake.

"I phoned my dad just after finishing the stage and told him I'd 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 car started to slide; I had to get out of the grass to bring the tail round and that was it. A second or so gone.

"Still, I'm well pleased. The stage, the setting, the atmosphere ? it was just amazing. I don't think even the World championship has seen anything like it.

"And yeah, it would have been nice to have left it as the leader."

Meeke had the honour of leading off the rally, he and Gareth MacHale - one driver from the north, one from the south - setting the rally in motion in a blaze of flashbulbs.

And it was Meeke who won that particular head-to-head, beating MacHale's Focus by a comfortable four seconds with a time of one minute 31.8 seconds.

And his time would 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, all of them among the top professionals in the world.

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 9/10ths of a second. Meeke was just 1/10th behind the C4 he had helped Citroen develop last year.

The works Subarus of Aussie Atkinson and Solberg were fourth and fifth fastest with the Fords of Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Hirvonen joint sixth. The Citroens of Sordo and Manfred Stohl were eighth and ninth with Pons rounding out the top 10.

Further back, Irish Tarmac champion Eugene Donnelly was 14th in his Skoda Fabia and the ex-champion, Andrew Nesbitt 15th in another Subaru.

But this was just a prelude to the real rally, a showcase for an event which is back on the road again from Sligo this morning for more typical Irish stages over the border back roads. But it also served as the showcase for an Irish starter, Kris Meeke.

Positions after stage one: 1 Marcus Gronholm (Ford Focus) 1 min 30.8 secs; 2 Sebastien Loeb (Citroen C4) 1-31.7; 3 Kris Meeke (Subaru Impreza) 1-31.8; 4 Chris Atkinson (Subaru Impreza) 1-32.0; 5 Petter Solberg (Subaru Impreza) 1-32.2; 6 Mikko Hirvonen (Ford Focus) 1-32.5; 7 Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford Focus) 1-32.5; 8 Dani Sordo (Citroen C4) 1-32.7; 9 Manfred Stohl (Citroen Xsara) 1-33.3; 9 Xavier Pons (Subaru Impreza) 1-33.3.

Belfast Telegraph


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