Juho Hanninen has completed the opening day of the 2011 Sata Rallye Acores with a margin of 4.3 seconds over last year's winner Bruno Magalhaes.
Hanninen, the defending Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) Champion, snatched first place from Andreas Mikkelsen when the Norwegian was slowed on stage two with power steering failure, and extended his advantage at the wheel of his SKODA Motorsport Fabia Super 2000 with the fastest time on the day-closing super-special stage in front of several thousand fans.
“So far it has been quite okay, but there's a long way to go and I am expecting a big fight,” reported the early leader. “I have a good feeling with the car, and I am happy to be starting fifth-on-the-road [on Friday].”
Despite his setback, Mikkelsen remains firmly in contention in his SKODA UK Motorsport Fabia, 1.4 seconds down on Magalhaes and a mere 5.7 seconds behind Hanninen heading into Friday's nine all-gravel stages on the mid-Atlantic island of Sao Miguel.
Magalhaes underlined his threat with the fastest time on stage two in his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207. The Lisbon driver suggested he could have been closer to Hanninen in the overall classification had it not been for a bout of understeer on stage one, which caused his front tyres to experience significant wear.
“It's fantastic to be in this position after some difficult rallies recently,” enthused the local hero. “We made a few changes to the suspension, and the car is good. I am confident for a good second day.”
“We saw some smoke in the middle of stage two, and then I started to lose the power steering,” revealed Mikkelsen. “It was really scary after that, because there were some big crests to control the car on – but I still have a chance.”
Hanninen's SKODA team-mate Jan Kopecky is fourth overnight. The Czech driver said he was still trying to restore his confidence on gravel, having not driven on a loose-surface rally for twelve months. He reported finding optimum braking-points as being particularly troublesome.
Patrik Sandell sits fifth on his return to IRC action in his SKODA Sweden Fabia – but far from happy. With the top five positions after stage two being reversed to determine the road order on Friday, Sandell will be forced to run at the head of the pack and forge a clean path through the surface gravel for the drivers behind.