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THIERRY Neuville took an early lead at Rally Sweden on Thursday night after winning the opening speed test in Karlstad.

PHOTO: Returning champion Marcus Gronholm in a Toyota beat Hyundai driver Sébastien Loeb in their opening contest on the Karlstad trotting track (Jaanus Ree/WRC Media pic)

Sweeping bends, a spectacular jump and a great atmosphere raised the excitement for fans at Karlstad’s horse trotting track. Drivers tackled two laps of the ice-based roads in head-to-head duels.

Neuville defeated world champion Sébastien Ogier in the fastest heat of the night. The Belgian won by 0.8sec in a Hyundai i20 as the pair delivered the fastest times of the night on the snow and ice-covered track.

Neuville, who was fastest in the morning’s shakedown, has mixed memories of the 1.90km test. Two years ago he crashed out of the lead there, while last season he avoided errors en route to victory.

“We know how to lose in this stage and we also know how to win the rally,” he said. “This weekend is going to be tricky. Tomorrow morning we can hope for good conditions. I feel comfortable in the car, that’s important.”

Andreas Mikkelsen was 0.3sec behind Ogier’s Citroën C3 in another i20. The Norwegian beat Ott Tänak by 0.8sec, the Estonian fourth in his Toyota Yaris.

Jari-Matti Latvala, who became the most experienced driver in WRC history with a record 197th WRC start, was fifth in his Yaris. He edged fellow Finn Teemu Suninen by 0.7sec and admitted completing the test without incident was a relief.

“There was a little bit of pressure, we had to perform and get through this stage. Now it’s done, I can relax and focus on the real action,” he said.

The final heat featured WRC legends Sébastien Loeb and Marcus Grönholm, the latter making a guest appearance at his favourite rally nine years after his last start. Grönholm claimed the spoils, eighth fastest in a Yaris.

The rally continues on Friday with the longest leg of the four-day fixture. The seven forest road tests cover 137.41km, with all but the final stage taking place across the border in Norway.

Outright standings after SS1 (provisional):

End of day one (Thursday):
1 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) 1m34.9s
2 Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Citroën C3 WRC) +0.8s
3 Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger-Amland (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1.1s
4 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Toyota Yaris WRC) +1.9s
5 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +2.0s
6 Teemu Suninen/Marko Salminen (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2.7s
7 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Citroën C3 WRC) +3.0s
8 Marcus Grönholm/Timo Rautiainen (Toyota Yaris WRC) +4.1s
9= Eerik Pietarinen/Juhana Raitanen (Skoda Fabia R5) +4.4s
9= Kris Meeke/Seb Marshall (Toyota Yaris WRC) +4.4s

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.

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