Torrential rain couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of tens of thousands of Czech rally fans on Saturday evening, as the opening leg of the Barum Czech Rally Zlin, round eight of the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge, saw Skoda Motorsport ace Jan Kopecky claim a one minute advantage at the front of the field.

Kopecky is not only bidding to become the event's first Czech winner in a Czech car for eight years, but also attempting to close the five-point margin between himself and Peugeot UK driver Kris Meeke at the top of the 2009 IRC points standings.

In a dominant drive on Saturday the 27-year-old from Opocno withstood the weight of expectation from an army of devoted fans, the furious pace of his rivals and a deluge over the final three stages.

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Having started the day in second place after Friday's opening night spectator stage in the city centre of Zlin, Kopecky claimed six stage wins in a towering performance. The extremely fast and often very rough stages were described by the Skoda man as 'brutal' with no quarter being given among the leading contenders. Nevertheless he was able to build his lead despite losing stage victories to championship leader Meeke and his team-mate Juho Hanninen.

"It's really fast, really tough and there is absolutely no way you can back off even a little," Kopecky said. "But despite all that our rally has been perfect so far. Everyone has had a few scares - including us - but the car has stood up to the speed and severe bumps really well, and we're in the best position possible for the final day."

Second place at the overnight halt is held by Freddy Loix, the Belgian Peugeot driver having run consistently in the top group throughout the day. Having started in close company with his team-mate, defending IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz, Loix moved up the order when the Frenchman's car burst into flames and retired on SS4, but has yet to take a stage win.

"It's all going okay for us and the car is fine, but we're still a little bit off the leading pace," he said. "I'm trying everything that I can, but no matter what Mister Kopecky is always a little bit ahead!"

Not only is Loix left trying to close the gap to leader Kopecky, but also fighting a rearguard action against the Peugeot UK entry of championship leader Meeke. Having started the day in 33rd place after a puncture on the spectator stage, Meeke charged up into fourth place over the first three stages of the day.

On SS5 Meeke spun and caused some light damage to his car, but battled back through the remaining stages to end the day just 8.4s behind Loix. "We put ourselves under a lot of pressure after dropping time on last night's stage, and perhaps pressed on a bit too hard as a result," he said. "I certainly wasn't happy to have made that mistake on SS5 but thankfully we're still in the hunt and there is still a very long way to go."

Fourth place is held by the second works Skoda Fabia of Juho Hanninen, who won last night's city centre stage in Zlin and won again on SS6, but struggled to maintain his pace in between these two victories. He has nevertheless recovered and is now battling to hold off the Peugeot of three-time Barum Czech Rally Zlin winner Roman Kresta.

"It was really difficult this morning because the competition was so fast and I just wasn't comfortable on the asphalt roads, which are so narrow and bumpy in the forests," Hanninen said. "But as the day went on I got more comfortable with it all and we're in a good position for tomorrow."

A dramatic exit from the rally meanwhile befell Abarth team leader Giandomenico Basso, the winner of the previous IRC round in Madeira earlier this month. Despite an encouraging start to hold third place, Basso had said that rainfall would work against the handling of his car on the slippery Czech asphalt

When the downpour began on SS7 he came off but continued having dropped only a few seconds. As the rainfall became torrential on SS8, however, Basso and co-driver Mitia Dotta suffered an enormous impact from which they emerged unscathed - but which forced officials to cancel the stage.

Having initially struggled to acclimatise to his new Peugeot 207 S2000, BF Goodrich Drivers Team entry Martin Prokop duly got up to speed, climbing to sixth place at the overnight halt. The newly-crowned Junior World Rally Championship winner's pace grew with his confidence in the guest car for this event, and he holds his position in front of Citroen's teenage World Rally Championship driver, Russian star Evgeny Novikov, who has privately entered a Skoda.

The final points-winning position changed places several times before Luca Rossetti claimed it overnight in the surviving works Abarth, ahead of the leading Ralliart contender, local man Vaclav Pech.

For the all-new Proton cars, however, there was little joy to be found in the Czech Republic as computer software problems in the engine management system eliminated both of the promising Satria Neo S2000 cars of Bryan Bouffier and Guy Wilks on the opening night.

In the IRC 2WD Cup local man Egon Smekal leads the way, after fellow Honda competitors - Dutchman Marcel Piepers and Norwegian Martin Knudsen - both crashed out. Smekal leads fellow Czech driver Jiri Skoupil by the narrowest of margins in his Abarth, with another Honda belonging to Hungary's Laszlo Vizin lying third.

Sunday's final day begins at 08.00 hours and runs through six special stages before the finish in central Zlin at 16.00 hours [all times local].