Umberto Scandola has taken the early lead on the Rallye du Valais, the penultimate round in this year's Intercontinental Rally Challenge, which got underway on Thursday.

The young Italian, who was also the early leader of the Sanremo Rally last month, put in a faultless performance in Switzerland to claim a slim advantage of just 1.1 seconds at the first overnight halt.

By winning two of the three stages held so far, the Abarth man has demonstrated an impressive turn of speed despite his relative inexperience.

"It's been a very good start but I'm quite conscious that there is a long way to go," he stated. "On the three stages today we just made sure that we took no risks and kept a clean line.

"We had a little bit of understeer and the stages were surprisingly slippery, but on the whole we had no problems at all. I just need to make sure that I keep a comfortable pace and stay on the road. Last year we were third on this rally, which gives me a bit of extra confidence."

Peugeot Belgium's Freddy Loix meanwhile heads the chasing pack in second and he led early on: "I'm happy with the way that the rally has got underway for us. It's hard to tell how the whole event will go from just these three stages, but I'm pleased enough so far," Loix continued. "Tomorrow is when we have the real challenge though, and we could encounter some mist and fog as well - which would make things very difficult."

Loix's team-mate Nicolas Vouilloz lies third and if he wins this weekend he will clinch the IRC drivers' title, regardless of how his two rivals for the crown - Giandomenico Basso and Luca Rossetti - get on.

Basso, the winner of the last two IRC rallies in Spain and Sanremo, served notice of his intention by claiming the first stage that was run, Crans-Montana. He remained in contention during the second stage, but suffered a setback during the third and last stage of the leg, when he had a puncture to the front-right tyre.

Luckily for the Italian it was in the final kilometre of the stage and he dropped just 13 seconds to end up in sixth place overall overnight.

"Despite our puncture it's not too bad: we only lost about 13 seconds so it could definitely have been worse," said Basso, who needs to win ideally to keep his title hopes alive. "Towards the end of the stage I cut a corner and just damaged the inside of the front-right tyre. We only had a kilometre or so left to drive, but there were some tight hairpin bends that we struggled to get the car round.

"I've got a bit of tendonitis in my right wrist, so I think it's going to be quite a painful weekend! But nothing is lost: we will see what happens tomorrow. Our tactics stay the same: flat-out all the way."

Bryan Bouffier and Rossetti ended up in fourth and fifth, sandwiched between Vouilloz and Basso. Rossetti thought that he had chosen tyres that were too hard for the opening loop of stages and he consequently lost time.

Further down the order local man Gregoire Hotz is seventh and he set a notable second-fastest stage time on SS3 with his Peugeot 207 S2000, while Anton Alen rounds out the points-scoring places by continuing his learning curve on asphalt to claim eighth.

In the IRC 2WD Cup, Alessandro Bettega currently leads and holds 17th place overall. The Italian said that he was not pushing too hard, and now his priority will be just to finish as his title rival Marco Cavigioli failed to make it to the end of the day.

The Italian is reported to have ripped a wheel off his Fiat Punto Diesel, giving Bettega the chance to win the title here in Switzerland if he finishes first or second in the two-wheel drive category.

So far there have been very few retirements, but local man Herve Van Dach has been one of the first to succumb to the demands of this rally, when his Peugeot 207 S2000 stopped on the road section after SS1.

The action now continues on Friday and crews will complete a total of seven stages, making up 127.88 competitive kilometres. The day starts at 09:00, followed by a loop of two stages that includes the longest stage of the rally: the 40-kilometres of Les Etangs-Sembrancher. The cars then return for a 20-minute service at the CERM, Martigny's exhibition centre, at 12:16.

This service halt is followed by a loop of three stages that takes the cars to the east of Martigny. The cars return to service for the second time at 16:00, before contesting the final loop of two stages, which are a repeat of the La Luy-Sembrancher and Champex-Les Valettes stages [all times local].

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