With the local radio traffic news advising people to stay at home unless their journeys were necessary, a mammoth crowd still ventured to historic Scone Palace to cheer the start of the RACMSA Rally of Scotland: the final round of the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
A jubilant atmosphere filled the site where Scotland's kings were once crowned, fuelled by bagpipes and fireworks, and there was nothing that either thick fog or driving rain could do to dampen the spirit of the occasion. Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, flagged the field away from the ceremonial start and into a 1.53km 'superspecial' stage to thrill the thousands of fans who had braved the weather.
Early leader was none other than former British and Asia-Pacific rally champion – not to mention the crowd's local hero – Alister McRae. At the wheel of the new Proton Satria Neo S2000 for his first IRC appearance, McRae stormed through the stage but soon found himself in the thick of the points battle as the stage times rattled in from his rivals.
Ultimately the two runs through the Scone Castle stage delivered two wins for this year's IRC series champion Kris Meeke, the Peugeot UK driver relishing his first appearance on home soil. In customary form he blitzed the opening stage in his 207 S2000 to go more than two seconds clear after his first run. “The weather here reminds me of the Azores back in May,” Meeke quipped. “We had a mini-hurricane there on the second day and there was thick fog and rain.”
On both runs Meeke was pursued by his career-long rival Guy Wilks, relishing his first outing in a Skoda UK-entered Fabia S2000. The two-time British championship winner is still getting the feel of his new mount but was delighted with the car's potential and the atmosphere on Scotland's return to international rallying.
“The organisation team here has had to contend with a lot – not least the weather – but this event has a lot of strengths and it's very confidence-inspiring how it's come together,” he said. “But I think it's great to be rallying outside of south Wales.”
Third place fell to this year's British Rally Championship winner, Irishman Keith Cronin, after the first run, but he dropped time on the second run through the Scone Palace stage and it's 22-year-old Englishman Adam Gould who holds the position overnight. Gould took his place alongside Meeke in the BFGoodrich Drivers' Team Peugeot after being awarded the drive by a panel of journalists, and is keen to repay the faith shown in him through the next two days.
With McRae's Proton and a host of turbocharged Ralliart Lancer Evo machines in the top order, one of the big surprises of the night was the pace of the Estonians Kaspar Koitla and Martin Kangur in their two-wheel-drive Honda Civic Type R machines. Koitla managed to score fourth place overall on the Rally Russia in July, and is clearly aiming to repeat that level of performance in the adverse Scottish weather conditions.
The old adage that rallies are seldom won but often lost on the opening stages holds true, and all the top runners remain firmly in contention for honours. Tomorrow the rally route heads out into the forests of Perthshire, and challenges unknown to international rallies for more than 20 years.