Defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen has taken the early lead on the opening round of the 2012 Intercontinental Rally Challenge after the first three stages of Sata Rallye Azores.

Despite a puncture on the opening stage, Mikkelsen set the fastest time on SS1 and despite losing some time to factory Skoda driver Juho Hanninen on SS2, then beat the Finn on SS3 to lead by just 1.4secs overnight.

"It's been a good start to Rally Azores and, as expected, we're having a close battle with Juho," the Skoda UK driver said. "We used today to find a good pace that we're comfortable with and we'll continue with that pace tomorrow.

"With the top five running in reverse order, we'll start fifth on the road tomorrow and try to make sure that plays to our advantage. Today was a bit of a warm-up; tomorrow's a long day and that's when the proper rally starts."

The pair have already broken away from the chasing pack, with Bryan Bouffier 23.0secs off the pace in third place at the wheel of his Peugeot, with Bruno Magalhaes just under half a minute away from the lead in fourth.

Skoda Germay driver Sepp Wiegand and the Mitsubishi of Ricardo Moura round out the top six.