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Stormont Castle has seen many an historic night, but in terms of pure visual and aural excitement few would have matched last night's start to the inaugural Irish round of the World Rally Championship.

The 1.82km Super Special Stage was won by Ford's Marcus Gronholm of Finland in 1m30.8, just pipping arch-rival Citroen's Sebastien Loeb of France by a mere 0.9 of a second. Best of the Irish was Dungannon's Kris Meeke, who clocked 1.31.8.

The stage took place in near-perfect weather conditions. The November night was cold and dry but the 7 degrees temperature was an indication of the difficulties encountered by the drivers, who found the surface slippery. However, this did not detract from the anticipation of what promises to be a tremendous few days of rallying.

"It was slippery around the stage but I enjoyed himself immensely and can't wait to get to Sligo," said Gronholm.

Meeke and Loeb concurred but both said they had enjoyed the stage and the atmosphere in particular.

More than 11,500 rally fans turned up to the sell-out event and they drew unanimous praise from the competitors.

Ford's Andreas Mikkelsen said: "The crowd was wonderful – it was just a brilliant setting."

The opening ceremony was a cacophony of sound and vision, celebrating the rich heritage of Northern Ireland. Young people with flags representing each competing nation performed music and dance to the sound of samba and side drums, harp, pipes, traditional and carnival dance music.

The dignitaries, including First Minister Ian Paisley and the Republic's minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism Seamus Brennan, were joined by Princess Anne.

The Stormont stage proved an ideal curtain-raiser before the fully-fledged stages commence tomorrow morning.
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