CROWDS braved heavy rain showers and strong winds as the FIA World Rally Championship got under way at Oulton Park.

Following a ceremonial start in Liverpool earlier on Thursday, October 3, and paying the Mersey Tunnel fee en route, the world's top rally drivers descended on the Little Budworth track for a unique challenge in treacherous conditions.

the opening Dayinsure Oulton Park Stage was the first chance to see this year's Wales Rally GB entrants in competitive action, winding their way through a very slippery course which featured numerous hairpins, a 360-degree donut and an off-road water splash obstacle.

Before the first cars competed against the clock, Olympic champion cyclist turned racing driver Sir Chris Hoy had the honour of driving Colin McRae’s rally-winning Subaru Impreza on the circuit, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the running of Rally GB.

He said: “It’s terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure because you have this iconic car of so many people’s hero, my hero certainly, and you want to do it justice but you also don’t want to damage it.

“The thought of doing any damage at all or hitting a wall is just unbearable, I was having nightmares about it last night. I thought I just need to get round but equally, as the great man himself [McRae] would say, ‘if in doubt flat out’.

“It’s a fine line between booting it around and keeping it in between hard objects. But it was amazing. It was quite surreal just sitting there in his seat, in exactly the same position as Colin had it in 1996, to drive it here at Oulton Park is just a magical moment.”

Co-driving the decorated Olympian was Colin’s father Jimmy McRae. The duo entertained the large crowds, while the Autocar 75th Rally GB display proudly showcased iconic rally legends from the past ahead of the arrival of the competitors to the circuit. Live music and a rousing DJ setlist built the atmosphere as the night closed in.

A chance to grab autographs of the WRC stars warmed up proceedings before the International field were let loose onto the all-new spectator stage.

Fans didn’t have long to wait for the action, as the Cheshire circuit soon echoed to the sound of the flame-spitting WRC heavyweights, each tackling the 2.2-mile opening stage of the rally in spectacular fashion.

Adding to the crowd’s delight, Ulsterman Kris Meeke and co-driver Seb Marshall topped the timesheets 2.1 seconds quicker than the chasing Hyundai i20 of Thierry Neuville.

Petter Solberg’s giant-killing Volkswagen Polo R5 rounded out the top three, with the treacherous conditions even catching out championship leader Ott Tanak, who outbraked himself on the run to the off-road section and stalled his car, costing him a precious few seconds of delay.

Action on the stages continues this weekend in the forests of north Wales, mid-Wales, an exciting stage through the streets of Colwyn Bay and a finish in Llandudno.

The winners will be crowned in front of fans and teams at the Ceremonial Finish on Llandudno Promenade from around 1.30pm on Sunday.