Huge crowds gathered in the heart of Cardiff this evening to watch the spectacular opening to this 14th and final round of the FIA World Rally Championship.

After the official start ceremony outside the Welsh capital's historic City Hall, the 75 starters made their way to Cardiff's Dockland area for the opening competitive action around a purpose-built track.

Two cars at a time raced head-to-head around the floodlit gravel 2.45km super special stage in front of a capacity 10,000 crowd, thrilling the fans as they leapt high over spectacular jumps and ploughed through the watersplash.

Markko Martin and Michael Park led the Ford BP Rallye Sport challenge, setting second fastest time in their Focus RS World Rally Car. They were just 1.4sec behind Petter Solberg. Team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot were 12th fastest in their similar Focus RS, just 4.0sec behind Solberg. The 2002-specification Focus RS of Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, run by M-Sport finished the test in ninth.

"That was a fun way to start the rally," said 27-year-old Martin. "There was a great atmosphere in the stadium and I think we provided pretty good entertainment for the fans. Now I'm looking forward to a good night's sleep before we go into the forest speed tests in the morning. The Focus felt good in the test stage this morning so I hope that's a good sign for the rest of the weekend."

Such was the pace of the leading competitors that only 3.8sec covered the top 10 leaderboard. None of the manufacturer entries reported any serious problems.

The opening leg continues tomorrow when cars leave Cardiff at 05.30. Ahead of them lie five forest special stages before a repeat run of the super special back in the city - a total of 161.79km. The day includes the 43.09km Resolfen in the Vale of Neath, the longest stage of the rally, which follows immediately after the 32.58km Rheola to provide an extremely tough challenge for competitors.



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