Subaru's Petter Solberg was fastest tonight through the Cardiff Super Special 1, the Norwegian 1.4 seconds quicker than Ford's Markko Martin, to take the early lead on the Rally GB.

Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan, flagged the leaders away on this decisive and final round of the 2003 FIA World Rally Championship.

Solberg's two championship rivals, Carlos Sainz and Sebastien Loeb finished the test, fifth and sixth respectively, with Marcus Gronholm and Tommi Makinen coming in joint third.

"I had no problems at all during shakedown and I'm looking forward to this rally," said Gronholm, "I've always gone well here in the past, but I think this year the weather should be better which will maybe help us.

"My plan is to go as fast as possible from the beginning to help Peugeot win the manufacturers' championship. It's been quite an up and down season for me so I'd like to finish it with a strong rally."

There were no retirements on the opening test, but Gilles Panizzi - in semi-works 206 WRC - lost a little time when his car hit the armco barrier under the bridge. He was still joint-ninth quickest though, equal with Mikko Hirvonen and fellow Peugeot star, Harri Rovanpera.

Rovanpera commented: "I spent the shakedown trying out suspension settings, and I couldn't find the right balance at first. But in the end I found a good solution, so I'm feeling quite confident for the rally. It always suits us Finns well! My last World Championship rally was in Australia two months ago, so I need to be sure of finding a good pace quickly. That will be my goal here."

The other works Peugeot, driven by Freddy Loix, who is standing in for Richard Burns, was joint sixth.

Loix said: "My objective for this rally is to learn as much as I can about the car and to enjoy myself. It's not easy when you jump straight into a new car without much testing, but my idea is to build up to speed gradually and do everything I can to help Peugeot.

"The car felt very quick when I first drove it but it was quite aggressive, so I spent a lot of the time during my test yesterday softening the differentials and making it suit my driving style better, which is quite smooth and flowing. In total, my test lasted for about four hours so I still have a lot to learn. But I'm happy to have this opportunity: I think it's easier to get used to a new car here rather than in Monte Carlo!"

The action begins proper tomorrow [Friday] at 7.51am local time, when SS2 - Brechfa [23.12km] - takes the crews into the Welsh forests.



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