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'.