Peugeot Belgium driver Nicolas Vouilloz is tantalisingly close to claiming his inaugural IRC drivers' title, after finishing day two of the Rallye du Valais on Friday in the lead.

Vouilloz claimed the rally lead after the opening 40-kilometre stage of the day, which he won by a remarkable 14.1 seconds.

Victory on the Rallye du Valais, which the Frenchman also claimed last year, would automatically make him champion, no matter where everybody else finishes.

"I'm very happy with today and we've had no problems," he reflected. "On the last stage we set a fastest time and the reason why is very simple: the stage was all downhill, and seeing as I have competed in downhill mountain biking for so long, this was second nature for me!

"Seriously though, tonight I need to think hard about whether or not to continue to push or slow down a little bit. Of course I'd love to win the rally but the main focus now is obviously on the championship."

Second at the end of day two was Vouilloz's team-mate Freddy Loix, who won three stages to offer the Frenchman a big challenge for the lead.

The Belgian finished up only 11.7 seconds behind, setting the scene for a thrilling battle for supremacy within the Peugeot Belgium rankings on Saturday. If it is necessary to gain the drivers' title though, Peugeot Belgium are well-placed to play a team game in order to ensure that Vouilloz wins.

While it was a great day for Peugeot, it was less positive for Abarth. Umberto Scandola, who led after the opening day in his factory Grande Punto, retired on SS5 after ripping a wheel off. Scandola was cutting a fifth-gear corner, when a hidden rock on the inside of the bend broke the steering arm, making it impossible for the talented young Italian to finish the stage.

His team-mate and title contender Giandomenico Basso needs to finish in the top two of this event to stand any chance at all of winning this year's IRC drivers' title, but his hopes were dealt a blow by two punctures. The second puncture, on SS6, cost him nearly two minutes.

The Italian, who is also suffering from a wrist injury, found that the set-up of his Grande Punto was not entirely to his liking in the afternoon but he is determined not to give up - even though he is now down in seventh.

"We've had some very bad luck today: essentially our chances of fighting for the championship have been ruined by punctures," he stated. "In particular, the long stage contained a section that was run on gravel: I didn't like it as these cars in asphalt set-up are too specific to work properly on gravel.

"But it's the same for everyone and Nicolas drove very well. After losing so much time it was difficult for us to find the same motivation in the afternoon and also the set-up of the car is not quite right. But tomorrow is another day, so we will push hard and see what happens."

Peugeot Italy's Luca Rossetti, who recently won both the European Championship and the Italian Championship, meanwhile enjoyed another of the consistent days that he is well-known for. Having claimed third overall at the end of SS4, he maintained the final provisional podium place all the way to the overnight halt. Nonetheless, the Italian admitted that he had no answer to the pace of the Peugeot Belgium duo.

Peugeot Poland driver Bryan Bouffier was also on consistent form to keep the fourth place that he had held since the opening day of the event, despite a puncture in the morning.

Ironically, Abarth's best-placed contender is now Anton Alen in fifth, who has the least experience on asphalt of all the Abarth factory drivers. The Finn concentrated on keeping his lines neat and tidy in order to stay out of trouble.

Top local driver is Gregoire Hotz in sixth, while Peugeot Hungary's Janos Toth completes the points-scoring places in eighth. The best-placed Mitsubishi driver is another local man, Jean-Philippe Radoux, who is currently just outside the points in his Lancer Evo 9.

There was drama in the IRC 2WD Cup when points' leader Alessandro Bettega retired on the road section just before SS9 with a driveshaft problem. With his key title rival Marco Cavigioli already sidelined, this was a vital opportunity for Bettega to claim the two-wheel drive championship. Bettega had earlier overcome a puncture, but his Rallye du Valais now seems to be over. Currently leading the IRC 2WD Cup category is another local driver, Joel Rappaz, in a Honda Civic.

A significant retirement on day two was local hero Olivier Burri, who stopped his Abarth before SS6 with a mechanical problem.

The action now concludes on Saturday and the final day includes seven special stages in total - consisting of two loops of three stages plus a final run through the Les Casernes stage that was first held on Thursday.

The total competitive distance for Saturday is 107 kilometres, making a complete competitive distance of 266.25 kilometres over the three days and 17 special stages of the Rallye du Valais.

The cars will leave parc ferme at 08:00, en-route to the first stage that starts at 09:18. After three special stages to the east of Martigny, the cars return for a 20-minute service at 12:09. They then do the Les Casernes stage again before repeating the morning's loop of three stages. The rally finishes with a final 20-minute service at 16:25, before the finish podium at 16:45, located at the CERM exhibition centre in Martigny [all times local].

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