Rallying: Blomqvist rolling back the years

Derrick Whyte with the RAC Rally
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It did not take long for the Network Q RAC Rally to bite back at the critics who said this year's was a low-key event because it was not part of the world championship. By lunch on the first day, three of the leading five cars had ploughed out as winter and the northern forests showed their teeth.

Finland's Juha Kankkunen, the pre-rally favourite, was the first of the 192 starters down the ramp in Chester at 7am on a frosty morning yesterday, and one of the first out of the event as well - a brush with a ditch and a broken alternator belt ending his challenge on an icy stage three. Ari Vatanen was another leading figure to make an enforced early exit, courtesy of a stray boulder and an even strayer Range Rover 23 miles into Kershope forest.

But while the big names of today were finding it tough in the frozen forests on roads resembling rutted ice rinks, one of yesteryear, the 50-year-old former world champion, Stig Blomqvist, was enjoying himself hugely. In his 21st RAC rally, 25 years since he first won it, and in an unlikely sounding partnership with a Skoda, he was up with the pace all day in third place. In fact, through Kielder there were three Skodas in the top 10, their combination of front- wheel drive, less power and a light frame proving ideal in the conditions.

The dominant figure, however, was Armin Schwarz of Germany, in a Toyota, who steered clear of trouble most of the way through the nine special stages to establish a commanding lead. Masao Kamioka of Japan followed him.

It was a tough introduction to the rally for the Formula One driver, Martin Brundle. He had a puncture on the first stage, lost time going slowly on the second, and had to be pulled out of a ditch by a fellow competitor, Louise Aitken-Walker, on the third. After five stages he was one hour 18 minutes adrift.

It was not a good day either for Alister McRae, flying the family flag in the absence of his brother, the 1995 world champion Colin. McRae, like many, plunged into a ditch and was timed out of the event on stage six.