Italian rally stars dominated the top positions at the end of the opening day of the Rallye Sanremo, but the title battle was blown open as pre-event favourite Jan Kopecky crashed out on stage two.
The classic Italian event, round ten of the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge, took to the mountainous roads around the Riviera town of Sanremo, but quickly became a two-way battle between the privately-entered Peugeot 207 S2000 of Paolo Andreucci and the works Abarth Grande Punto S2000 of Luca Rossetti, who were separated by just 1.7secs at the overnight halt.
“I'm very happy, everything was fine, but I didn't expect to be ahead of everybody before the long stage,” Andreucci admitted at the overnight halt, while Rossetti claimed not to have been happy with the set-up of his car.
"It was impossible to change anything and be confident, so we had to leave it,” he added, “Hopefully, tomorrow, we can make a good fight with Paolo.”
The first stage was won by Czech hero Kopecky, who has become a title challenger in the works Skoda Fabia S2000 after consecutive victories, but disaster struck halfway through SS2 when he broke a wheel and was eliminated from the event.
The exit hands the championship initiative to Peugeot UK's Kris Meeke, but the British ace - currently holding a slim points lead - has been unable to capitalise so far and trails in fourth place behind the Italian pacesetters and Peugeot Benelux's Nicolas Vouilloz, the defending IRC champion. Vouilloz, however, 'moved over' for his stable-mate on the last round...
“I learned that Kopecky retired just before the start of SS3 and lost my concentration - I couldn't find the right rhythm,” Meeke admitted, “Then I had some brake problems, both on SS3 and the long final stage, which is sort of my fault as I settle the car by left-foot braking and, over 40km, the heat builds up. I have to try to get as many points as possible here though, as they are going to be very important.”
The second Benelux Peugeot of Belgian veteran Freddy Loix lies fifth, and has closed up fast on the points leader during the course of the night's fourth stage – the daunting 40km through Cuori. The rest of the regular contenders have found themselves locked out of the points positions by an armada of Italian talent, with Renato Travaglia (Peugeot), Piero Longhi (Skoda) and Umberto Scandola (Abarth) keeping well ahead of works Skoda driver Juho Hanninen in eleventh, the lone Proton of Guy Wilks in 15th and the Ralliart of Franz Wittmann in 25th.
In the IRC 2WD Cup category, Honda teams blasted back into action with a vengeance. Having been left unrepresented in the previous round, the Rally Principe de Asturias in Spain, the rapid Honda Civic Type R machines have shone in the class on the twisting asphalt. Another promising Italian, Sandro Sottile, leads from championship leader, Frenchman Denis Millet, in his turbocharged Peugeot 207.