Urmo Aava got off to a fabulous start on the rain-lashed Rally Ireland this morning and heads the pack following the opening loop.

Aava, who is making his debut with the Stobart Ford team this weekend and who revealed on Thursday that he currently only has the funds to do two WRC events, was 'Mr Consistent' - setting the second fastest time in all three tests.

Aava opted to use the winter tyre for the loop and that certainly paid dividends, especially on SS1. He now leads by 6.7 seconds.

"It is a dream come true for me and a great start to my first rally with Stobart. I didn't expect the conditions to be so bad," he admitted. "There was so much water on the road I could hardly keep the car in a straight line.

"Our tyre choice was perfect though and the tyres were working well; better than I expected in these conditions. To be in number one position coming into the first service is a fantastic feeling and a new experience for me."

Sebastien Loeb meanwhile heads the chasing pack and while he had a slow start in his Citroen C4 WRC and was only seventh fastest in SS1 - struggling with the standard slick tyre, in conditions he described as 'incredible', he was back on it in SS2 and SS3.

Indeed the Frenchman set the pace in both Cavan 1 and Aughnasheelan 1, first hauling himself up to second and then cutting Aava's lead from 22 seconds to just 6.7 seconds.

"It was much better in SS2 and SS3 but conditions were still extremely hard," said the five-time world champion. "On the first stage I did not want to take any chances, on the second and third stages we had much better grip but it is a long way to the finish."

Mikko Hirvonen rounds out the top three, albeit 24.2 seconds further back in his BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT Focus RS WRC08. The Finn, who like Seb went for the slick tyre, was fourth fastest in SS1, and third in SS2 and SS3.

"There was more water than I expected, so much that it was like driving through watersplashes, and I lost control completely in a couple of places," said Hirvonen. "I wasn't so happy with my tyre choice.

"It was a 50-50 decision but I think the winter tyre would have been better. I hit a bump on the first stage and the impact damaged the light pod. It left the lights facing the wrong way and pointing straight at me through the windscreen. I couldn't see for the glare - but it took me about 5km before I realised all I had to do was to switch them off!"

Dani Sordo and Henning Solberg complete the top five, the latter 18.5 seconds off P4 and 55.4 seconds off the leader.

"The conditions on the first three stages were so difficult but we made the correct tyre choice and it's been a great morning and a fantastic start to the rally. It is very slippery and the standing water is making things tricky," said Henning. "I don't have much experience here so I know not to push too hard and use my head. This is a long first day and we still have a long way to go."

Further down the order, Conrad Rautenbach is running well and is sixth for the Citroen Junior Team. The Zimbabwean managed the sixth quickest time in SS3 and he now lies around 30 seconds off Henning and 14.3 seconds up on Gareth MacHale, the leading local star.

2008 Irish tarmac champion, Eamonn Boland completes the provisional points' scorers at this early stage in eighth, followed by Matthew Wilson and Khalid Al-Qassimi.

Recent Rallye Monte Carlo Sebastien Ogier is on the verges of the top ten in eleventh, while Chris Atkinson, Aaron MacHale, Alan Ring and Shaun Gallagher round out the top 15.

In the Junior World Rally Championship category, Aaron Burkart has led from the off and he currently enjoys a 9 second cushion over Hans Weijs. Yoann Bonato is third with Martin Prokop and Simone Bertolotti fourth and fifth respectively.

In terms of retirements one major runner has already gone out, namely Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala led after SS1, until he aquaplaned off the road in the next test. His Focus took a heavy impact to the front left in the incident, puncturing the tyre and breaking both the track control arm and driveshaft. He dropped almost two minutes and while he made it to the end of SS2 and tried to make repairs, his efforts were in vain and he retired. Latvala now hopes to restart on day two under the SupeRally rules.

The action now continues at 13.02 hours local time, when all three of this morning's tests will be repeated.

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