Intercontinental Rally Challenge champions past and present suffered differing fortunes on the opening day of the Geko Ypres Rally, with Juho Hanninen building a big lead and Andreas Mikkelsen losing more time with a visit to the Belgian ditches.
Hänninen, champion in 2010, impressed by reaching the overnight halt leading by 26.8secs, but defending champion Mikkelsen's hopes of a first IRC victory on asphalt suffered a huge blow after he went off the road into a ditch on stage five, losing more than a minute in the process.
Mikkelsen, driving a Škoda UK Motorsport Fabia Super 2000, made the perfect start to the event, celebrating his 23rd birthday in style by winning the opening Dikkebus stage west of Ypres. However, Hänninen hit back by going quickest on the next stage, despite briefly running off the road in his factory Fabia. Thereafter, the Finn, on hard compound tyres, proved unstoppable as Mikkelsen struggled with a lack of stability caused by his decision to select a medium compound tyre with several 'cuts' for extra grip in the drying conditions.
Anxious to ensure a podium finish in his efforts to make it two IRC titles in succession, Mikkelsen opted for a risk-free strategy on stages four and five only to brake too late for one of the rally's countless slippery junctions and go off the road.
“I was trying not to let Juho get too far away, so I decided to push,” Mikkelsen explained, “I braked a bit too late going into a junction, slid a little wide on the exit and went backwards down into a ditch with the front wheels in the air, so I wasn't able to move anywhere. It took me a minute to get help and get on the road again. There is still a long way to go and we need to try and climb the leaderboard as high as we can.”
Hänninen, who could make it ten career IRC wins if he stays in front on Saturday's twelve stages, accepted that he had had a good day.
“It was not so easy on the first stage because the conditions were quite slippery. but it's not been a bad day and I'm happy to be leading," he said, "Staying on the road is my only plan for tomorrow.”
Mikkelsen's delay inadvertently caused frustration for local hero Freddy Loix, the seven-time Ypres winner, who lost time when Mikkelsen rejoined the road a short distance in front of him. Making his first start in the IRC in 2012, Loix is second overall in his 2C Competition-run Peugeot 207 S2000.
Škoda Belgium's Pieter Tsjoen admitted to a few gear selection mistakes but holds the final podium spot, albeit a scant 13.4secs ahead of Mikkelsen. Patrik Flodin is a strong fifth on his debut for Petter Solberg
Engineering and his maiden run in Ypres. The Swede says he's still not fully recovered from the shoulder injury that kept him out of Giru di Corsica-Tour de Corse back in May, but his only mistake occurred when he overshot a junction on stage six.