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.