The 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge resumed its fast and furious battle among the 'next generation' of top-flight rally cars and drivers with the start of the Sata Rallye Azores.

A total of 50 cars were flagged away from the ceremonial start in the Atlantic port town of Ponta Delgada, with this new event for the IRC promising a feast of action on its combined gravel and asphalt stages.

Action got underway immediately with a crowd-pleasing superspecial stage which saw the contenders running two at a time in a gladiatorial start to the event. The biggest cheer of the night was for Kris Meeke and his adversary, Frenchman Nicolas Vouilloz, both in Peugeot 207 S2000s, who virtually dead-heated their run through the purpose-built amphitheatre.

Nevertheless it was Belgian veteran Freddy Loix - the current championship leader - who claimed the overnight lead after a spectacular performance on the 1.7km superspecial, edging out Meeke and Vouilloz in front of the much-fancied Skoda Fabia of Czech driver Jan Kopecky.

The action continues with nine timed stages on Friday and ends on Saturday evening after a final leg of eight special stages.

"We had quite a hard landing that damaged the car slightly, but I'm sure that there is nothing to worry about," said Loix, after setting the fastest time. "It was very close and I'm sure that's going to be the case again tomorrow."

Finnish driver Juho Hanninen, who will start as car number one on Friday in his Skoda Fabia S2000, admitted that the event was set to be a difficult one.

"The stages are very tough but very nice," he said. "There's really something for everybody on this rally and a lot of variety. One of the most difficult things will be adapting to the way that you can suddenly go from a very fast section to a slow and technical section. There's a lot to get used to."

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