Andreas Mikkelsen leads a fierce all-Skoda battle with Jan Kopecky for the lead by just 8.7secs, with Peugeot ace Thierry Neuville a further 12.7secs behind, on the opening day of the 45th Canon Mecksek Rallye.

This is the first time the Canon Mecsek Rallye, based around the historic city of Pecs, has been part of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, and all the drivers coming here for the first time felt that they would struggle to reconcile the slow pace of the recce - performed in road cars at legal speeds - with the high velocities they
would achieve in racing trim once the roads were closed.

Nobody expected to arrive with the perfect set-up straight out of the box. Thus the recurring motif during the morning's opening loop was one of frustration with pacenotes and set-up: braking for corners that should be flat out, and finding the suspension either too pliable or so stiff that the cars were jumping over the bumps. For the most part, it was the drivers who adapted most quickly who prevailed.

Driving a Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia S2000, Mikkelsen won all but one of the morning's loop of four stages, holding back by his own admission on stage three, a stage he was not yet comfortable with. Kopecky initially complained that his Fabia was too stiff, and that he did not like some aspects of the course but, between the stages, he finessed the set-up of his car and, by the afternoon, he was on a roll, setting commandingly the quickest time on all three stages after the lunchtime service. The last test of the day, due to be held in the evening, was cancelled because there were too many spectators.

"It's been a really good day, and to be leading overnight is a great feeling," Mikkelsen admitted, "Even though it's quite bumpy, these roads are like a race track and you have to use racing lines. I'm really enjoying myself out there. We've got a long way to go on this rally. It' been very fast and Jan has been pushing us very hard."

"Andreas pushed hard this morning so now we have to catch up," Kopecky countered, "We will see. Much depends on the conditions of the stages tomorrow. Already we have seen a lot of loose gravel on the surface of the last stage."

Neuville was on impressive form in the Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207 S2000, occupying second place overall for the first four stages and showing a thoroughly mature outlook. He made it very clear that he wasn't going to risk his car by pushing to keep up with Mikkelsen, but still managed to post stage times within the top three on all but one occasion. He too made set-up changes throughout the day to improve the car, and finished the final stage with a firm grip on the final podium position.

"It's been a very good day and we're exactly where we want to be," Neuville insisted, "On the last stage, I couldn't see the road properly because it was so dark. I didn't want to damage the car on the last stage. Tomorrow we go on more attack!"

For the opening two stages, a clearly delighted Frigyes Turan held third place in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000, but the top ten was so tightly contested that no mistake went unpunished. On stage three, he posted the tenth quickest stage time and lost three places overall. Although he recovered, moving back up to fifth, in the heat of the afternoon he made a mistake shortly before the end of stage five, clipping one of the logs at the apex of a corner and rolling off the road.

BFO-Skoda Rally Team's Freddy Loix spent the morning recreating his exploits on the final day of last month's Barum Czech Rally Zlin, matching Kopecky's pace to the tenth of a second. But he failed to find the same level of set-up improvements and, on the second run through the stages, he slipped back to a baffled fourth, unable to understand where he was losing time.

"We tried some more things after the last service but it did not work," he said.

Peugeot UK's Guy Wilks worked through the morning to improve the set-up of his 207 S2000, feeling that it was moving around too much. A calculated gamble to run the harder tyre compound paid off on stage three when he set the fourth quickest time, but his day ended by the roadside on stage five after a coolant hose retaining clip came off and his engine overheated.

"Something splashed on the windscreen," he said, "I thought it was from the water bottle, but when I turned on the windscreen wipers I realised it was coolant."

Bryan Bouffier had a problematic morning in the Peugeot France 207 S2000, losing confidence in his pacenotes from the first stage when he found tyre barriers which had been laid down on corners to prevent 'cutting' had been removed since the recce. Then, in stage four, he had to back off when he rounded a corner to find spectators crossing the route. In that stage alone, he lost 12.2secs to the leader, but the retirements of Turan and Wilks enabled him to end the day in fifth place.

After battling brake problems during the morning, Toni Gardemeister overhauled local privateer Robert Butor for seventh place in stage six, but he still felt that the TGS Worldwide Fabia had too short a top gear.

"In the fast sections I was bouncing off the limiter," he said.

There was trouble early on for Proton when Giandomenico Basso halted after stage one with an engine issue, then PG Andersson hit a kerb in stage two and damaged a wheel. The Swede was able to continue but the impact had also damaged his Satria Neo S2000's rear diff, adversely affecting the handling. Since the issue did not manifest itself until after the mid-morning service halt, Andersson had to take it easy through stages three and four. This made his aim of a top ten finish an even tougher task, even before he had to stop with a technical issue on stage six.

Hermann Gassner Jr found some of the opening stages too slippery for his liking in the Red Bull Skoda, but ended the day ninth, 8.1secs ahead of Hungarian entrant Norbert Herczig in a similar car. Outside the top ten, local knowledge really told as a host of entrants from the Hungarian championship dominated the midfield, especially on the tighter stages. Multiple Hungarian champion Janos Toth would have finished higher in his Peugeot-Total Hungaria Rally Team 207 S2000 but for a recurring diff problem in the morning which cost him over two minutes.

Bruno Magalhaes quickly realised he had badly misjudged the gears of his Peugeot 207 S2000 when he reached the first flat out section and found himself hitting the rev limiter in top gear. After that it was along road back to the top ten, and he ended the day just outside in eleventh place.

"For sure, it was a big mistake with our gear ratios this morning," he said. "This afternoon has been much better."

Skoda Auto Deutschland drivers Mark Wallenwein and Matthias Kahle were 16th and 23rd overnight. Kahle was leaving morning service when his engine dropped on to two cylinders. The problem was traced to a broken fuel injection pipe, but it was a lengthy fix and Kahle checked in to the next time control late, incurring a penalty.

In the IRC Production Cup in the opening stages Gyorgy Aschenbrenner and Piko Zsuzsa were untouchable in their Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX, not only pulling clear of the IRC Production Cup rivals but also regularly posting top ten stage times. IRC regular Toshi Arai, driving the latest spec Subaru Impreza R4, admitted that he found the stages scarily fast and lost almost two minutes to Aschenbrenner over the morning alone, ending the day seventh. Aschenbrenner leads Beppo Harrach by 1m09.9secs.

In the IRC 2WD Cup, Menyhert Kroszer, driving a Citroen DS3 R3T, led from the first stage but 2WD Cup regular Stefano Albertini's Renault Clio R3 was never far behind. Kroszer leads by 15.0secs, with third placed Olle Sasa 1min 2.1secs behind in his Suzuki Swift S1600. Ferenc Levai is the highest placed Honda Civic Type R3 driver in fifth. Title leader Jean-Michel Raoux holds fourth spot.