Bruno Magalhaes will start the final day of Sata Rallye Acores (Saturday) with a slender margin of 2.2 seconds over Intercontinental Rally Challenge leader Juho Hanninen.
The Peugeot Sport Portugal driver seized the initiative from overnight pacesetter Hanninen on Friday's first stage when the Skoda Motorsport pilot picked up a front-left puncture and has remained in front ever since.
Hanninen's delay dropped him to fourth overall but his recovery took him ahead of team-mate Jan Kopecky on the day's final stage. Kopecky ensured it would be a three-way fight for victory on the gravel event, which still has seven more stages left to run, by completing the second leg 8.2s adrift of Magalhaes, who remains on course for his first IRC victory.
Magalhaes has scored points on every IRC event held so far this season but has yet to climb onto the top step of the podium. However, buoyed by a successful pre-event test and good stage knowledge, the 30-year-old from Lisbon claimed a trio of impressive stage wins today.
He should have been further in front of Hanninen tonight but for a rear-left puncture on the day's penultimate test. With one spare tyre on board his 207 S2000, he was forced to fit a right-sided replacement, which made his car veer sideways on several corners.
Hanninen was 13.6s adrift of the lead following his front-left deflation, which occurred four kilometres from the end of the 7.90-kilometre Batalha Golfe stage. After initially struggling for confidence and facing a robust defence from Kopecky in his efforts to climb the leaderboard, it looked as though Hanninen would have to settle for second. However, a blistering run through the day-closing Lomba da Maia stage, which he likened, in parts, to his native Finland due to the wider nature of the road, enabled him to leapfrog Czech Kopecky and close to within touching distance of Magalhaes.
Kopecky started day two with a new clutch and steering system fitted in his Fabia S2000. Despite taking two stage wins during the day, he couldn't fend off Hanninen although his chances weren't helped when he encountered a spectator standing close to the road on the last stage, which resulted in a small time loss.
In a day of differing fortunes, Kris Meeke, the IRC champion and last year's Azores winner, suffered three punctures and a sixth-gear spin.
His first puncture, caused by striking a submerged rock, deranged his Peugeot's front suspension and dramatically affected its handling, which triggered his spin on the Sete Cidades stage, which runs around the rim of an inactive volcano.