Paolo Andreucci will head a Peugeot one-two into the final day of Rally d'Italia-Sardegna following a drama-filled opening leg of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge qualifier on the sun-baked Mediterranean island, when several drivers, including Sebastien Ogier, Andreas Mikkelsen and Guy Wilks hit trouble.
The Peugeot Sport Italia-run Andreucci, back competing in the IRC for the first time since Rallye Sanremo last September, made the most of his lowly starting position, which guaranteed a cleaner road surface, to take the lead on the day's second stage only to drop behind defending IRC champion Kris Meeke on the very next run.
But a gamble to switch to a medium-compound tyre for the day-closing Monte Lerno stages, held in cooler temperatures, and coupled with his road position, paid dividends as the 45-year-old stormed ahead of his British rival with the fastest time on both tests after admitting he had gone on "full attack".
Meeke, driving a Peugeot UK-backed 207, had become the rally's third different leader in as many stages when he swept in front with the fastest time on the second Monte Grighine stage, which was televised live on Eurosport. Co-driven by Irishman Paul Nagle, Briton Meeke extended his gap through the repeated Gonnosno stage but couldn't replicate his earlier pace on Monte Lerno, which he put down to a combination of being too cautious on the slippery surface, sticking to the hard compound tyre and a slight power loss issue, which he said was reminiscent of the problem he suffered on Rally Argentina in March.
But while Andreucci and Meeke could reflect on strong opening days, Guy Wilks, was facing a night in hospital as he begins his recovery from two fractured vertebrae in his lower back, which he sustained when his Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia S2000 left the road at high speed on the day's first stage. The car sustained a heavy front-end impact as it hit a tree, vaulted a fence and careered over boulders before coming to rest 40 metres from the road. Co-driver Phil Pugh was uninjured but Wilks was flown by helicopter from the crash scene to hospital in Oristano where X-rays revealed the true extent of his injuries.
There was some positive news for Skoda, however, as factory drivers Juho Hanninen and Jan Kopecky reached the overnight halt in Olbia in third and fourth places respectively with Czech Republic's Kopecky taking two stage victories. He could have challenged his Finnish team-mate but for a mistake on stage three when he cut a corner too tightly and inflicted sizable damage to his Fabia's front-right corner striking a rock, which necessitated a rapid overhaul in service by his mechanics.
Hanninen was hampered by having to run first on the road for much of the day after Sebastien Ogier, who started first, initially stopped to change a punctured tyre on stage two before pulling up for good with an engine overheating problem in his Peugeot Italia 207.
Fifth-placed Thierry Neuville, tackling his first gravel rally in a four-wheel drive car, said he gained plenty of experience after an encouraging performance in his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207. He is comfortably clear of sixth-placed Teemu Arminen, who heads the Italian Gravel Rally Championship standings and is the leading driver in a conventional Group N car following a solid showing in his Tommi Mäkinen Racing-built Subaru Impreza.
P-G Andersson dropped to 36th overall after picking up a front-right puncture 10 kilometres into Saturday's first stage but fought his way back up to seventh, despite his intercom link to co-driver Anders Fredriksson suffering an intermittent failure on stage five.