Juho Hanninen holds the overnight lead on The Donnelly Group Circuit of Ireland Rally, round three of the 2012 Intercontinental Rally Challenge, having battled ahead of current title-holder Andreas Mikkelsen with the fastest time on stage four.
The event got off to an exhilarating start with three different stage winners, three overall leaders and a scant 0.6s covering the top two drivers after a day of high drama that began with the spectacular Titanic Super Special Stage in Belfast on Good Friday afternoon.
Although the Titanic test took place in dry conditions, rain affected the Drummond and Legane stages this evening and made the low-grip roads around the rally base in Armagh even more slippery. It placed an onus on tyre choice with drivers torn between opting for soft compound rubber for the damp roads or a hard compound tyre for better performance in the dry.
“It's not been easy because the grip is changing and it can be slippery in some places but dry in others,” said factory Skoda driver Hanninen, whose only major moment of concern occurred when he nudged an earth bank with the right-rear wheel of his Fabia Super 2000 on stage three.
“For the night stage it was hard to see where the grip was in some places. But it's going to be a big battle with Mikkelsen.”
Mikkelsen took the lead on stage two but his advantage of 5.5s was cut to 2.8s when he slid wide into a fence early on the 25.16-kilometre third stage, which Hanninen won. “I was braking too late into a left-hand corner and went into a fence but luckily I got going again,” said the Norwegian.
Hanninen made more progress with another fastest time on stage four but any hopes Mikkelsen had of regaining his lead were dashed when stage five was cancelled following earlier time delays.
Jan Kopecky, who led after the opening stage, meanwhile is third in the second factory Skoda Fabia S2000.
Irishman Craig Breen, making his debut for the Saintéloc Racing-Mister Auto operation, reached the end of stage three in fourth overall only for his Peugeot 207 Super 2000 to develop a fuel pump problem on the road section heading to the first service halt in Armagh. Although he eventually made it to service, he picked up 1m30s in time penalties and languishes in seventh position starting day two: “It's very disappointing, but this can happen,” he said.
Northern Ireland's Alastair Fisher thus holds fourth. He said stiffening the suspension of his M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 in evening service had improved his car's handling to the extent that he was able to set an identical time to Mikkelsen on stage four.