Thierry Neuville has taken a slender 0.1 second lead on the Prime Yalta Rally following the opening two stages in Ukraine's Crimea region.
Day one of the all-asphalt Intercontinental Rally Challenge qualifier consisted of just two short stages close to the rally base in Yalta. Held in warm and dry conditions, the tests were considered a 'taster' of the action expected today [Friday] when the rally begins in earnest with six demanding stages characterised by their bumpy nature and inconsistent surface.
Neuville began the event on a high following his victory on the previous IRC round in Corsica. Considered a favourite for a second win in Ukraine by many of his rivals, Neuville underlined his billing by winning the rally's first stage, a 2.12-kilometre sprint, in his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 Super 2000.
Although he was beaten on the next stage by Britain's Guy Wilks, whose 207 S2000 is run by the same Kronos Racing operation from Namur in Belgium, Neuville was second quickest to maintain a slender advantage at the completion of Thursday's opening exchanges.
“It felt very comfortable on the good smooth roads,” said Neuville. “Tomorrow will be bumpy and difficult so I tried to make a difference today and it seemed to work. I know it won't be so easy tomorrow.”
“It was very difficult because sometimes I was lifting when I should have been flat and other times thinking I should have lifted because the grip is changing so much,” Wilks added. “But it felt good in a lot of places.”
Behind the pacesetting Peugeots, Patrik Sandell heads the Skoda challenge in his Skoda Swedenbacked Fabia in third place. The Swede has vowed to make up for his lacklustre showing in Corsica and impressed with the second quickest run through the first stage.
“I feel I am back in the game now,” Sandell stated. “It was a bit difficult to make the right tyre choice in case it started to rain so maybe I did not have the best choice all of the time. But I've done two good stages.”
Andreas Mikkelsen is fourth in his Skoda UK Motorsport entered Fabia with Toni Gardemeister completing the top five in his TGS Worldwide-entered Skoda. Mikkelsen said his pace was compromised slightly by his decision to carry two spare tyres to counter the possibility of rain. Gardemeister was one of the few drivers who managed to test in Ukraine before the rally and was buoyed by his upturn in form following changes to his car's rear differential and damper settings.