Jan Kopecky heads a thrilling battle for victory on Barum Czech Rally Zlin following an action-packed opening day of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge qualifier.

Driving a Skoda Motorsport Fabia Super 2000, the Czech hero heads team-mates Juho Hanninen and Freddy Loix, who are tied on time in second place, 19.7secs behind the 2009 event winner.

"We have to be pleased because we are in first position, but still tomorrow will be a big fight," Kopecky commented, "We have not been the quickest this afternoon so this is a small warning and means we have to push a lot tomorrow. I am confident but I know the guys behind want to catch me."

Kopecky moved into first place on Saturday's second stage and gradually stretched his advantage over second-placed Andreas Mikkelsen, which grew to 10.4secs when Mikkelsen ran wide on a patch of loose gravel on stage six. Mikkelsen hit back on the next test to narrow Kopecky's lead to 7.3secs, only to suffer a rear puncture 15 kilometres into the 28.69-kilometre Trojak test. The delay caused by changing the puncture and a spin on the day's last stage means he languishes in sixth position and more than two minutes off first place starting Sunday's final six stages.

"We are very happy with our speed today but it's very frustrating to have picked up a puncture," Mikkelsen sighed, "I haven't a clue how it happened and it was so
surprising. We didn't hit anything, the puncture just came from nowhere, and with so much of the stage still to go we had no choice but to stop and change it."

After winning Thursday night's superspecial through the streets of Zlin, Hanninen was out of sorts in the morning but, by stiffening up the rear suspension of his Fabia at midday service, his fortunes appeared to improve, although a troubled eighth stage - when he ran wide and stalled before picking up a front-left puncture nearing the end of the run - dropped the Finn into the clutches of Loix.

"The time I lost this afternoon could be crucial because Jan is a bit far away," Hanninen admitted, "But things were much better this afternoon than in the morning with the feeling with the car. A lot can still happen tomorrow because it could be raining. But if it's dry Jan can almost control it."

Loix, at the wheel of his BFO-Skoda Rally Team entry, also struggled in the morning by running soft compound tyres and softer settings on his Fabia, which weren't suited to the hot conditions. Switching to hard compound tyres for the afternoon provided more precision and contributed to his pace being transformed to the extent he was fastest on three of the afternoon's four stages after he admitted to going on 'maximum attack'.

"It's fantastic to be in this position after some difficult rallies recently," Loix confessed, "We made a few changes to the suspension and the car is good. I am confident for a good second day."

Bryan Bouffier is the leading Peugeot 207 driver, in fourth overall, following an impressive showing that included the fastest time on stage five. Backed by Peugeot France, Bouffier is 23.4secs behind the Skoda trio, but still confident he can challenge for a podium finish.

"The car is perfect and I tried to push, but it's not easy to follow the guys in front," said Bouffier, who carried two rain tyres in the boot of his Peugeot for the afternoon loop of stages in the mistaken belief it would rain, "It's not over, for sure, and I will try my best."

Thierry Neuville, making his second start in Zlin, struggled to make an impact in the morning due to a combination of a lack of confidence with his pacenotes and car set-up. His efforts to make up ground suffered a blow when he left the road in sixth gear on stage seven and wiped out a line of small trees. Damage to the front of his Team
Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg resulted in a loss of power and aerodynamics. He soldiered on to the overnight halt in fifth position, however, one place ahead of the luckless Mikkelsen.

Toni Gardemeister is seventh, despite losing time when the engine in his TGS Worldwide Skoda dropped on to three cylinders in the afternoon. Young Irishman Craig Breen is an impressive eighth on his Zlin debut at the wheel of an M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000. Local driver Roman Kresta is ninth, but could have been higher up the order had he not picked up a puncture on stage five.

PG Andersson, making his Zlin debut in his PROTON Motorsports Satria Neo S2000, enjoyed a trouble-free morning but spun backwards into a hedge on stage six, which cost the Swede approximately 20 seconds. Another off-road moment on stage eight caused further delay, but he was able to keep his composure to complete the day in a strong tenth position.

Team-mate Giandomenico Basso, who reported a bout of oversteer in the morning, lost time when he spun and stalled on stage five. A right-rear puncture on stage seven caused more frustration for the talented Italian, who reported the handling of his car had significantly improved following adjustments to the suspension in midday service. He is 18th overnight.

Michal Solowow is eleventh in his M-Sport Fiesta, with Guy Wilks a despondent twelfth. The Peugeot UK ace was in the fight for a podium until a rear puncture on stage eight, caused when he ran wide on a right-hander into some bushes, wrecked his hopes.

"We took hard tyres for the afternoon, but with cuts at the rear as we heard it was going to rain," Wilks revealed, "But the car was moving around too much and I was pushing too much to make up for the lost time, slid wide and hit some bushes. We had to drive for three kilometres before we could change the tyre."

Behind Karl Kruuda in 13th, Patrik Sandell said the set-up of his Skoda Sweden Fabia was too 'soft' for Saturday morning's stages. Changes at midday service helped his cause but an intermittent power problem and the loss of his powersteering at the finish of the final stage merely served to compound his frustrations.

Skoda Auto Deutschland duo Mark Wallenwein and Matthias Kahle are 21st and 22nd on their first visits to Zlin, but Pavel Valousek's challenge ended barely one and a half kilometres into stage three when he crashed into a tree at high speed in his Peugeot Delimax Total 207. The Czech champion suffered a broken left arm while co-driver Zdenek Hruza was detained in hospital for precautionary checks after he reported back pains.

Vaclav Pech's bid for the IRC Production Cup faltered on stage six when his R4-specification Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer suffered two broken suspension arms. With Pech out, Jaroslav Orsak leads ahead of the Subaru Impreza of Jan Jelinek. Fumio Nutahara, in a Yokohama-backed Subaru Impreza, had been expected to challenge but crashed heavily on stage five.

Petr Zednik leads the IRC 2WD Cup in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta Kit Car with Vaclav Dunovsky second and Stefano Albertini third. Estonian Martin Kangur is the leading Honda Civic driver in 14th.