Leg one finished with the Subaru World Rally Team duo of Petter Solberg and Phil Mills lying fifth overall, but with team-mates Chris Atkinson and Xevi Pons both counting the cost of mistakes on the unforgiving Irish stages.

Conditions on the first leg of Ireland’s inaugural WRC event were treacherous, with the asphalt routes covered in mud. Conditions got worse for those running further down the order as the roads became ever-more slippery, aided by the afternoon rain. The narrow routes, lined by ditches, stone walls and banks allowed no margin for error, and the tricky conditions caught many drivers out.

Petter and Phil completed the opening Superspecial stage in Belfast fifth overall, winning their head-to-head pairing with Hirvonen (Ford). Experiencing some engine trouble in the morning’s loop of stages, which was traced to a faulty sensor and rectified during the first service, Petter had a trouble-free afternoon to finish the day fifth overall.

Chris was the leading SWRT driver after Thursday’s Superspecial, finishing the 1.82km sprint fourth overall having also won his pairing. Lying sixth by the second stage of the morning, he was running well until he slid off the road in a fast right-hander 15km into stage four. Managing to return to the service park, the team repaired the front end of the car to enable Chris to continue leg one, but the incident cost him over 20 minutes.

Xevi completed the team’s clean sweep at the Superspecial, winning his own head-to-head. Restarting Friday morning eleventh on the road, he had to tackle even more mud in the stages, on surfaces he had no experience of. He was just outside the top ten after the second stage of the day, until he slid off the road 5km into stage four, resulting in engine damage that forced his retirement from the rally. He will not restart leg two tomorrow.

Chris Atkinson: “We’ve faced some incredible stage conditions out there today and were pushing quite hard this morning. Things were going well until SS4 when I got distracted by a split-time coming into the car. I looked down, missed my braking marker and went off. It’s very disappointing. From that point on the focus switched to testing, looking ahead to Monte Carlo next year and working our way through some set-up options. Tomorrow we’ll continue that work, not running at a maximum attack but hopefully taking something valuable from the rally.” 

Petter Solberg: “Today’s stages have been difficult and tricky, but for me it’s actually been quite okay. The car feels okay, and from fifth place overall, anything is still possible over the next two days. Today I’ve driven at a steady pace, I’ve taken no risks, and instead I’m keeping a pace I feel comfortable with. Tomorrow’s stages are a different kind of challenge and I’m looking forward to them.”
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