The 2011 edition of Sata Rallye Acores is set for a thrilling final-day showdown after Andreas Mikkelsen slashed Juho Hanninen's overall lead to just 1.3 seconds.

The SKODA UK Motorsport driver began the closing loop of three stages 10.1 seconds behind the defending Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) Champion, but he edged into contention courtesy of a hat-trick of fastest stage times on the tricky gravel event, which has been full of drama from the outset.

Bruno Magalhaes, the 2010 winner, lay third overnight in his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207 following a close battle with Hanninen's factory SKODA team-mate Jan Kopecky. Bryan Bouffier is fifth in his Peugeot France entry, and will start first-on-the-road on Saturday's final five stages when the leading positions are reversed.

Related Articles

Hanninen appeared to be in the ascendancy when he claimed his second stage victory of the day on the fog-hit Sete Cidades run on Friday morning to go 9.7 seconds clear of Mikkelsen. Although the Norwegian hit back with the quickest time on stage seven, Hanninen regained his advantage on stage eight when Mikkelsen ran slightly wide exiting a corner.

When organisers cancelled the repeat of the Sete Cidades test due to delays in recovering stranded competing cars that had hit trouble on the first run, Hanninen was given a momentary respite only for Mikkelsen to remount his charge, which appeared to take its toll on the Finn, who made a rare error on the day's final stage.

"It was a downhill hairpin right," he explained. "I almost spun, but in the end I stalled. I did not lose so much time, but it was a stupid mistake. It's going to be a big battle with Andreas, that's for sure. I'm not interested in second, so I will be pushing for victory. I made a stupid mistake on the final stage, which could make a big difference."

"I've been pushing quite hard and have made some very small mistakes because of this," added Mikkelsen, "but the car has been perfect, the team has done a great job and the crew has been okay, too."

Magalhaes admitted that he had driven 'flat-out' to fend off Kopecky for third, after conceding that he didn't have the pace to match Hanninen and Mikkelsen. It was a fraught finish to the day for the 31-year-old, when a rear damper problem caused a handling imbalance that was particularly apparent at high-speed.

"I have to say, I'm happy to be third," he confessed. "It's important to be on the podium, and I've driven flat-out to be here. The SKODAs are too fast, but I will continue to try hard."

Kopecky said his lack of confidence on gravel was masking his true pace, whilst Bouffier reckoned his lack of knowledge of the Azorean stages was compromising his efforts. The Frenchman now faces the prospect of running first-on-the-road on Saturday after Patrik Sandell - who had been in a secure fifth place for much of the day - dropped back when he was handed a one-minute penalty for an early check-in.

The Swede was adamant that the penalty was the result of an error, and not an attempt to avoid cleaning the road of its surface gravel for a second successive day in his SKODA Sweden Fabia.

Ricardo Moura's bid to gain maximum points in the Azorean and Portuguese championships is on-target following a cautious run in his Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer. The islander sat in sixth position overnight, and clear in the battle for the IRC Production Cup.

Paulo Maciel continues to top the IRC 2WD Cup, with series leader Jean-Michel Raoux up to second. Defending champion Harry Hunt was in second when he went off-the-road in the fog and mud of stage six and got stuck for approximately six minutes. He starts day three in fifth.

Guy Wiks was sixth overall when he crashed into an earth bank on stage six and broke the bottom left-hand suspension arm of his Peugeot UK 207 Super 2000 and retired, ruing: "We should have gone left but we locked up and went straight into a bank. We're really disappointed."

A loose master switch ignition cable forced Toshi Arai to retire his R4-specification Subaru Impreza on Friday's first test. He is set to re-start on day three. Team-mate Fumio Nutahara was eleventh overnight.