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.
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.”