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Thierry Neuville was the early leader of Rally Italia Sardegna after winning Thursday evening’s opening speed test.

Hayden Paddon was 5th fastest on the opening stage.The Belgian, driving a Hyundai i20 Coupe, defeated arch-rival Sébastien Ogier in the headline heat at Ittiri motocross arena to grab a 0.2sec lead.

“I enjoyed that quite a lot,” he said. “The car was working well but the stage was abrasive and the tyres suffered a bit, but I don’t care! A good crowd and a great atmosphere,” said Neuville.

Ott Tänak was second after beating Jari-Matti Latvala, despite a scare in the watersplash when the windscreen wipers on his Ford Fiesta jammed. “We were lucky!” said the Estonian.

Dani Sordo reported a similar problem in his i20 en route to third, after edging Elfyn Evans by a tenth of a second in their heat. The Welshman was fourth with Hayden Paddon and Ogier tying for fifth.

Several drivers clipped straw bales lining the course. The worst affected was Juho Hänninen who picked up minor damage to his Toyota Yaris’ rear left spoiler.

After an overnight halt in the east coast town of Olbia, the rally continues early on Friday with the first of two loops of four gravel stages. After lunchtime service in Alghero, the quartet is repeated, making a total of 125.46km of competition.

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