Jock Armstrong mastered the tricky and unpredictable conditions to secure a resounding victory on Saturday's Arnold Clark Thistle Hotel Snowman Rally, the opening round of the Hankook MSA Scottish Championship.

The Castle Douglas ace was fastest through all five stages, bringing his Subaru Impreza home more than two and a half minutes ahead of up and coming young Lanarkshire driver, Alick Kerr, also in a Subaru, who posted his best ever SRC result.

Last year's championship runner up Mike Faulkner took the final podium spot a further twenty seconds back in his Mitsubishi Evo 6.

Competitors were faced with a mix of snow, ice and gravel - at times all on the same stage - making tyre choice extremely difficult.

There was no holding back Armstrong, however, who was determined to push for the win, having finished third last year - his first attempt at the Snowman in 19 years.

With co-driver Kirsty Riddick, he was 23 seconds up on Kerr after the opening Meall Mor test, and following what many acknowledged to be the most difficult stage of the day, Millbuie, had extended his advantage to more than a minute over last year's winner Reay Mackay, with Kerr a further three seconds adrift.

From the end of SS3 Torr Achilty, there was to be no change to the top three of Armstrong, Kerr and Faulkner.

Said a jubilant Armstrong at the finish ramp in Inverness: "It's been fantastic - we were so close twelve months ago, and I thought there was no reason why we shouldn't go for the win, so it's all gone to plan. Compared to last year, the stages were actually more difficult by not having so much snow on them. There was more ice, and you were also going a lot quicker. But all in all, a great day, and it's set us up well for the season ahead - we need to nail the first two or three rounds".

Kerr won plaudits on last year's Snowman when he finished eleventh overall in a 2 wheel drive Ford Fiesta ST before making his 4WD debut in a Subaru Impreza - a switch which saw him move further up the rankings as the season progressed..

This was his first rally alongside experienced navigator Neil Shanks, and the 22-year-old Bothwell driver acknowledged that his presence was a confidence booster on the challenging event.

"It really helped, because at times the conditions were unbelievable and you really had to concentrate. Take the third stage, where we started off in snow - which was great - and then it was straight into gravel. But we got through, and I'm obviously very happy - it's a great way to start off the year".

Earlier in the day, Faulkner had spoken of the difficulties posed by the changeable conditions and grip levels - with sheet ice followed by gravel on some high-speed sections.

Nevertheless, the Kirtlebridge-based driver was still second fastest on two stages, and with co-driver Peter Foy was more than happy with the outcome.

"It's brilliant - we'd targetted a top five finish - ideally a podium - so it's just what we wanted to start the year off. We had a few heart-stopping moments, particularly the fourth stage where we had a big spin, but apart from that it's just been a case of survival and reading the road".

Dumfries farmer Rory Young and co-driver Allan Cathers, moved into fourth overall after SS4 Strathrory and held position - despite a string of punctures which meant they had to go into the final stage, Scotsburn, with a "flat" because he had run out of spare tyres!.

"After everything we've been through, we're pleasantly surprised by the result, to be honest," said Young, adding: "It's certainly been one of the most challenging days I've spent in a car, that's for sure. The five punctures were a bit demoralising, but we've survived and have a strong finish".

John Mackenzie from Thurso won the battle of the iconic Metro 6R4's to finish a superb fifth overall.

He praised "new" navigator Ian Macdonald for helping make the day a success, adding: "The car has gone well with no problems, and despite the conditions, we've not really had any hairy moments to speak of and the Metro has handled really well on the high speed stretches.. I've perhaps driven a bit more carefully today - not so rash, and it's paid off.

For local favourite Andy Horne, sixth place was a huge relief after failing to finish any of the eight rounds in 2009 behind the wheel of his crowd-pleasing DAM 4100 Gti.

Following a change of engine during the off season, the Inverness-based driver, alongside navigator Jim Howie, was determined to get his season off to a positive start - which was amply achieved, and included a third-fastest through the final Scotsburn test.

Like the majority of competitors, Horne found the conditions challenging to say the least:

"Surfaces changed all the time so you were never sure what was just up ahead. In all fairness, we could perhaps have gone quicker, but at the same time, we might have ended up in a ditch. My philosophy before the start was: "We ain't going to win any rally - we're going to go round as briskly as we can without taking any chances"".

With last year's Snowman-winning Metro 6R4 off the road for an engine overhaul, Reay Mackay, with Robert MacDonald on the notes, was behind the wheel of a "recently" Mitsubishi Evo 7.

It was their second competitive outing in the car, and their seventh overall - two seconds adrift of Horne and Howie - followed a sixth place finish on the previous weekend's Riponian Stages in North Yorkshire.

Walter Henderson and Jim Kinloch were fifteen seconds further back in their Subaru Impreza, after what the Lanarkshire-based farmer conceded had been "an eventful day".

"The first stage in particular we were a bit slow off the mark - I'd never driven the car in the snow before", said Henderson, "But once we got into our stride it went fine, and we had a fourth and seventh-fastest stage time, so it's been a good day".

Banchory-based Bruce McCombie - having switched during last season fr om a 2WD class-dominating Ford Puma to a Subaru Impreza - notched up a seventh and eighth fastest stage time on the way to ninth overall, alongside co-driver Michael Coutts.

The Dumfries crew of Davie Hughes and Bruce Harper rounded off the top ten in their Mitsubishi Evo 9, after what Hughes described as a "horrendous but good fun day" which started with a third fastest time on the first stage.

Among the notable retirements was one of the pre-event favourites, Lancashire based rally preparation expert Wayne Sisson, who got stuck in snow after sliding off on the second stage in his Mitsubishi Evo 9, and Donnie Macdonald from Inverness, who had to call it a day after his Evo 9 sprung an oil leak.