Peugeot UK driver Kris Meeke has charged to a commanding lead at the end of the first full day's running in the Sata Rallye Acores, round four of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
In the course of nine stages, the 29-year-old Ulsterman passed overnight leader Freddy Loix's similar Peugeot 207 S2000 and survived a wheel-wrecking rock on SS4 to set consistent times through the day to keep ahead of his championship rivals.
Meeke held good to his pre-event strategy of not being lured into over-stressing himself or his car when rivals not contesting the full 11-round IRC set impressive times. Nevertheless he was able to take and retain the overall lead from Loix, the winner of Thursday night's opening superspecial, before building a comfortable 30 second cushion over defending champion Nicolas Vouilloz, lying second at the end of the day in another Peugeot 207.
The Peugeot UK man was happy with the day and was one of the drivers happy to see the day run to its conclusion, despite an accident for Juho Hanninen which led for some calls for the final test to be canned.
"It's been a really tricky day with stages that contained a bit of everything,” Meeke said. “This rally has been even more varied than I imagined it would be after the recce, which is saying something. We've tried not to take any risks and I've had a very good feeling with the car all day. There was an interruption at the end of the day for an hour before the last stage after Hanninen's accident, and while some people wanted to see the stage cancelled as it was getting late I wanted to continue as I knew that I could pull out some more time. I'm very happy but this rally is far from over so we need to be extra careful tomorrow."
The first two stages of the day were a battle between Meeke and the Skoda Fabia of Finnish gravel ace Hanninen, but the Finn dropped eleven and a half minutes on SS4 4, Pinhal da Paz, after damaging his wheels and suspension on the same rocks that Meeke had clipped.
On the day's final stage, the second run through Pinhal da Paz, Hanninen's hopes of recovering the lost time were dashed in a stage-stopping shunt that ended his rally in dramatic style.
The second factory Skoda Fabia, driven by Czech asphalt ace Jan Kopecky, responded with a fastest time on SS5 in a total of five top three stage times through the day to end up third at the overnight halt in host town Ponta Delgada.
"It's been a good day for us but the last stage was very difficult and we struggled to find a good rhythm,” Kopecky said. “Even though he is perfectly OK, it is never nice to hear that your team-mate has had an accident and that 'deconcentrated' me a little bit. But we are happy to get to the end of the day on the podium and we will try to keep this place tomorrow. Before this rally I was not feeling so confident but so far we are on course for a good result. If I could finish anywhere in the top five then I would be very pleased."
Behind him the first of the Abarth Grande Punto S2000 runners, Finland's Anton Alen, made the best of his machinery with some brave performances to climb from eighth to fourth, keeping clear of Loix and local hero Fernando Peres in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX.
Starting the final day in seventh place will be Alen's Italian team-mate Giandomenico Basso. The Italian heads Conrad Rautenbach, who struggled with lack of experience on his first Super 2000 class outing in eighth at the wheel of his Peugeot 207. The top ten is rounded out by 2008 Rallye Azores winner Bruno Magalhães in another Peugeot 207, who earlier suffered transmission problems, and the Mitsubishi Lancer of Austrian Franz Wittmann.
In the IRC 2WD Cup, Frenchman Denis Millet leads the way in his Peugeot 207 RC Rallye from Italy's Manuel Villa in his Fiat Punto S1600.