The Telstra Rally Australia began in dramatic fashion tonight [Thursday] when huge crowds flocked to see the opening action of this tenth round of the FIA World Rally Championship in the heart of Perth.

An estimated 12,000 fans packed into the city's Gloucester Park to watch the world's top drivers compete head-to-head around the purpose-built floodlit track in the traditional opening to one of the most spectacular rounds in the calendar.

The city's trotting track, opposite the famous WACA test cricket ground, provided a perfect replacement for Langley Park, the traditional venue for the opening night's competition, which could not be used this year.

The rally has been brought forward almost two months from its usual November date and the Langley site, overlooking the city's Swan River, would have been too soft to host the event at what is the end of the Australian winter.

Rally Finland winners Markko Martin and Michael Park led the Ford BP Rallye Sport challenge over the super special stage, posting third fastest time around the sweeping bends and humpback jump of the 2.45km gravel test. Their Castrol-branded Ford Focus RS World Rally Car was just 0.7sec behind stage winner Petter Solberg.

"There is always a special atmosphere on the Rally Australia on the opening night and this year is no different," said the 27-year-old Estonian driver. "The stage was tighter and more twisty than Langley Park but still good fun. It was great entertainment for the fans but the serious action begins in the forests tomorrow morning."

Team-mates Francois Duval and St?phane Pr?vot were equal ninth fastest in their similar Focus RS with a third Focus RS, the M-Sport run car of Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, in eleventh. Such was the intensity of the competition that just 1.3sec covered the top ten drivers.

After an overnight halt, the opening leg continues tomorrow [Friday] when competitors head south of the rally base in Perth for eight speed tests around the town of Dwellingup, before returning to the city for a repeat of the Gloucester Park test. After leaving the city at 06.00, they return at 20.40 after 142.75km of competition. It is the longest leg of the four-day rally and also includes the longest speed test of the event, the 34.99km Stirling Long.



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