Citroen's Sebastien Loeb has taken the early initiative on the Neste Oil Rally Finland following the short 2.06 kilometre-run through the Killeri super special this evening, which as normal kicked off proceedings.

Loeb was paired with current championship leader and chief rival for the crown, local star Mikko Hirvonen in his 'duel' and the Frenchman came out top by 0.4 seconds, completing the test in 1 minute 20.5 seconds.

Hirvonen's 'best' left him joint third on the overall leaderboard with Subaru's Chris Atkinson, while Dani Sordo was second to give Citroen an early one-two.

Mikko had a little scare during his run in front of the thousands of fans, who turned out to watch the 99 starters. Indeed the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT #1 gently tapped the barriers near the start and sustained some minor damage to the rear of his Focus.

"It was an enjoyable, fast stage but it was also a little scary because the test has been built with concrete and metal blocks so it was important not to damage the car," said Hirvonen, who is celebrating his 28th birthday today.

"For me the rally starts tomorrow and I didn't drive flat out because I have bad memories of retiring there in 2004, so I took it cautiously. There is always so much excitement on the opening stage of Rally Finland and it's great the event has finally started. I can't wait until tomorrow."

Petter Solberg meanwhile completed the top five, fractionally ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala, while Citroen privateer Urmo Aava and Andreas Mikkelsen were seventh and eighth respectively.

"There was one tight left bend but generally the stage was fast with plenty of room in which to power the Focus around," said Latvala. "The surface was smooth and it was good fun. I try not to think about what Rally Finland means to a Finn like me or I become distracted, but it was great to see the crowd and it filled me with confidence. I'm relaxed."

Further down the order, Stobart Ford duo Gigi Galli and Henning Solberg rounded out the top ten with Mads Ostberg eleventh and Munchi's Ford WRT man Federico Villagra twelfth.

"This Killeri stage is a great way to start Rally Finland and the crowds here are amazing," said Gigi. "I know there are some Italians here as it is vacation time in Italy so it's good to see them here cheering me on. This event is very fun but there are a lot of fast guys so I am going to take it steady and see how we go after tomorrow's action."

"That was a great way to start the rally," Henning agreed, "and as normal the many crazy Finnish fans were cheering us on tonight. I like these fast stages and being [joint] fastest on shakedown [with my brother Petter] today has given me good confidence after the long break since Turkey. I am planning to enjoy this event and aim for a good result as well."

Of the other World Rally Car drivers' P-G Andersson and Matt Wilson were equal 13th, followed by Matti Rantanen, Toni Gardemeister, Khalid Al Qassimi, Luis-Perez Companc and Conrad Rautenbach.

"The Killeri stage is one of the best superspecials in the championship," P-G raved. "Okay, these stages are never going to rival to roads we'll use tomorrow, but I like Killeri. There's always a lot of fans there cheering you on, and the long corner at the bottom is a good place to really slide the car - we had a lot of fun with the SX4 WRC. On the whole I'm really optimistic about Rally Finland. It's one of my favourite events of the year and I know we have the speed to set good times and get a good result."

"I am very happy! The time at shakedown was good - and I wasn't taking the big risk to do this," added Andersson's Suzuki team-mate, Gardemeister. "The changes the team has made to the car through the summer have really made a difference. Now we're really looking forward to getting into the forests tomorrow. I want points from this rally."

In the Production Car WRC and the Junior WRC - Finland is unique this year in that it qualifies as a round of both - Juho Hanninen and Patrik Sandell set the pace respectively in those two support categories. Hanninen also just managed to break into the top twenty overall in his Mitsubishi, 0.8 seconds slower than Rautenbach's C4 WRC.

The action now begins 'proper' on Friday, when drivers face nine more stages east of Jyvaskyla before a second pass over the Killeri test. After restarting at 06.30 hours [local time], they tackle another 129.64km before returning to the city for the overnight halt at 21.15 hours [local time].


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