Mikko Hirvonen continues to lead the 78th Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo, the opening round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, following a dramatic second day's action in the Haute Loire region of France.

The Finn, driving the M-Sport Fiesta S2000 in competition for the first time, heads the overall standings by 47.7secs following Thursday's six stages, with Juho Hanninen second for the works Skoda Motorsport team and 2009 winner Sebastien Ogier battling from fifth up to third, courtesy of three stage wins in his Peugeot 207 S2000.

While Hirvonen edged closer to a debut IRC victory, last year's champion Kris Meeke was an early retirement, crashing out one kilometre from the start of the day's first stage. The Briton clipped a patch of black ice on a right-hand bend, understeered into a low bridge and veered down a bank, where his Peugeot 207 became stranded.

Although the weather conditions were remarkably tame on Wednesday's first leg, black ice and snow littered today's first two stages. The majority of the leading crews opted to use full studded tyres for the first loop in the hope they would provide sufficient grip to withstand the treacherous stage conditions. Meeke, however, opted to run half studs in the hope they would give him an advantage on the third stage of the day, which was largely free of ice and snow.

Unfortunately for the Peugeot UK driver, he never made it that far and, for a second year in succession, he and Irish co-driver Paul Nagle failed to finish the demanding asphalt event.

Hirvonen's day wasn't entirely free of incident either. He picked up a front-left puncture six kilometres from the end of the day's second stage after striking a rock lying in a snow bank. It resulted in a 40-second delay for the 29-year old World Rally Championship regular.

"It's been another good day today," Hirvonen reported, "We were testing different components on the car and, in the afternoon, we were able to try a bit more of a dry set-up.

"Although there was still a bit more black ice than I expected, we've had no problems with the car. We had a puncture in the morning, but it didn't cause us too many problems. It would be fantastic to win the Monte, but there's still a very long way to go, so I'm not even thinking about that."

Hanninen inherited second overall when Meeke crashed, but felt he could have been closer on time to countryman Hirvonen heading into Friday's final leg. He said he had driven too aggressively on the day's last stage, which caused his rear tyres to lose grip towards the end of the run.

"We had no problems today and the car has been perfect - our safety note crew is very experienced and their knowledge and help has been an important part of getting to where we are," Hanninen said, "Generally, I've been happy with the tyre choices - there were a couple of times when I maybe would have wanted a safer tyre but, okay, it wasn't a disaster. Mikko is setting a fantastic pace in front, but I am not surprised by that."

Ogier's main cause of complaint, meanwhile, occurred on the last test of the opening loop of three stages, when he and co-driver Julien Ingrassia received a split time that was faster than they had actually recorded. Assuming they were setting a strong pace, they backed off in order to avoid making any mistakes, but were ultimately too cautious than they should have been.

"Although we won three stages today, and moved from fifth to third, we didn't push very hard because that would have meant taking too many risks," Ogier commented, "The conditions have been too difficult to do that, and there is also now a problem of mud on the road following the first pass through the stages. I would prefer to be in front, but I am also happy that I am still in the rally tonight."

Skoda driver Nicolas Vouilloz started the day ahead of Ogier but, despite going fastest on the first stage, was powerless to prevent last year's Monte Carlo winner from moving ahead.

After a time-consuming puncture on Wednesday, Stephane Sarrazin suffered further delay when he slid into a snow bank on stage six and got stuck for more than two minutes. The French Peugeot driver blamed the incident on carrying too much speed into an ice-coated corner.

Franz Wittmann, Guy Wilks and Bruno Magalhaes completed the top eight at the overnight halt in Valence, with Toni Gardemeister falling from seventh to tenth behind Jan Kopecky. Gardemeister, driving an Abarth Grande Punto, lost time with a puncture on stage five and two spins on stage nine, while Skoda driver Kopecky suffered a puncture of his own on stage seven.

Clio R3 European Trophy contender Mathieu Arzeno's hopes of winning the IRC 2WD Cup ended when he crashed into retirement on stage eight. The young French driver's misfortune handed the category lead to Belgian veteran Kris Princen, with Pierre Campana now up to second. The rising star from Corsica impressed by setting the ninth fastest time overall on the day's final stage, which was run under the cover of darkness.

Friday's final leg gets underway with the 30.42km stage from Montauban sur Ouveze to Eygalayes, 120km south east of Valence. Crews then continue south to Monte Carlo for an early evening service before they tackle the final four stages at night, which include two passes over the famous Col de Turini in the mountains above Monaco. The first car is due to finish at 0105hrs on Saturday.

Monte Carlo Rally - Top 10 positions (after leg two)

1. Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen Ford Fiesta S2000 3h 12m 44.0s
2. Juho Hanninen/Mikko Markkula Skoda Fabia S2000 +47.7s
3. Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia Peugeot 207 S2000 +1m 10.3s
4. Nicolas Vouilloz/Benjamin Veillas Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m 34.3s
5. Stephane Sarrazin/Jacques Julien Renucci Peugeot 207 S2000 +6m 06.0s
6. Franz Wittmann/Klaus Wicha Peugeot 207 S2000 +6m 53.8s
7. Guy Wilks/Phil Pugh Skoda Fabia S2000 +7m 07.3s
8. Bruno Magalhaes/Carlos Magalhaes Peugeot 207 S2000 +7m 12.8s
9. Jan Kopecky/Petr Stary Skoda Fabia S2000 +7m 24.4s
10. Toni Gardemeister/Tomi Tuominen Abarth Grande Punto S2000 +9m 13.0s

Rtd Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle Peugeot 207 S2000