Subaru refugee Petter Solberg returned to the World Rally Championship in style tonight by setting the pace through the short opening super special in Oslo, much to the delight of his home fans.

Petter, who missed the season opener in Ireland after being left in the lurch following Subaru's exit, completed the 1.92 kilometre test in his privately entered Citroen Xsara WRC in 1 minute 32.8 seconds, 0.6 seconds up on BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen.

It was a strong start by the Norwegian, who was fifth in the shakedown this morning - although admittedly Friday will be the real test, when the action starts 'proper' and competitors head into the forests near Kongsvinger, south-east of the rally's base.

"It was a fun stage, with plenty of ice and lots of people in the grandstands," said Hirvonen. "It had some fast corners but was also twisty in places. It's a great way to start the rally but the action begins for real tomorrow in the forests."

Sebastien Loeb meanwhile was third quickest, 0.1 seconds further back, while Mads ?stberg and Jari-Matti Latvala came in fourth and fifth, the latter 2.3 seconds off the top time.

"That was good fun!" said Latvala. "The track was wide, the ice was thick and there were good snow banks. There was also a big jump, but I was careful over it because I didn't want any problems."

Further down the order Dani Sordo was sixth, despite stalling at the start, while Urmo Aava led the trio of Stobart Ford cars, with Henning Solberg eighth and Britain's Matthew Wilson ninth.

"It was great to start the rally here in the capital city of Oslo in front of so many fans, they really enjoy their rallying here," said Aava. "The surface here is very different from any other event, but the Ford Focus is the best car on this type of surface so my aim is to get into the top four.

"We had a good run tonight and shakedown was also very positive, so I can't wait to get started in the morning."

Henning was also enthusiastic, even though he had a small spin in the first corner: "It's great to start Rally Norway in front of so many of my fans, and I'm sure tonight kicked off what will be a fantastic battle over the weekend," he continued.

"It was an honour to be waved off by the Prime Minister and the stage was really good fun. From what we've seen on the recce the rest of the rally is going to be held in perfect conditions for both the drivers and spectators."

Of the rest Anders Gr?ndal completed the top ten with Sebastien Ogier eleventh and early P-WRC leader, Patrik Sandell twelfth in his Red Bull Rallye Team-run Skoda Fabia Super 2000.

"I'm very thrilled," said Sandell, who was 0.9 seconds up Andis Neiksans, his closest class rival. "I couldn't have asked for a better first day in the Red Bull Rallye Team. It was really great to drive in front of such a huge crowd. The first step has been taken but the rally proper won't start before tomorrow."

In total 42 cars crossed the start line - flagged off by the mayor of Oslo, Fabian Stang, and leader of Hedmark county council, Siv T?rudbakken, with Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg looking on.

The action now continues on Friday when competitors leave Hamar at 07.00 hours for the first full day of action.

They face two loops of four speed tests covering 113.88 kilometres. There is little respite for crews either with just a 15-minute service break in Kongsvinger after the first loop before returning to Hamar for a 45-minute service in the evening. The leg ends at 18.47 hours [all times local].



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