Andreas Mikkelsen will take a commanding lead into the final day of the Sibiu Rally, the first Intercontinental Rally Challenge counter to take place in Romania, following a drama-filled day on the demanding, albeit picturesque, gravel stages in Transylvania.
The reigning IRC champion was fastest on all seven of Friday's runs in his Škoda UK Motorsport Fabia Super 2000 to build an overnight advantage of 2min 44.1secs. But, while the Norwegian enjoyed a hugely impressive showing, several rivals hit trouble with Mathieu Arzeno, François Delecour, Patrik Flodin and Sepp Wiegand all out of luck during the course of the day.
Arzeno retired five kilometres from the finish of stage two when a connecting bolt in his Saintéloc Racing Peugeot 207 Super 2000's front-right suspension broke in the punishing conditions. The young French driver had hoped to restart on day two, but will go no further after subsequent checks discovered a crack in the shock absorber top mounting.
Flodin was less than four seconds off the lead starting stage two when a broken left-rear wheel rim on his Hankook Petter Solberg Engineering M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 resulted in a deflated tyre and a huge time loss. Wiegand, meanwhile, lost one minute with a left-rear puncture on the same stage, while Delecour, in a Munaretto Peugeot 207, was one of several drivers to be slowed in the hanging dust clouds on stage four, which restricted visibility considerably and forced some to come to a complete stop. Although organisers responded by increasing the interval between each car to four minutes for the two night stages, the dust remained a huge menace and has resulted in a somewhat disjointed leaderboard.
“We are making no mistakes and avoiding all the big stones, which we knew would be a good tactic before the start of the rally,” Mikkelsen reported, “I'm so careful in the corners that I'm not loading the tyres at all, just driving neat and tidy. It was hard to drive like that at the start of the rally because I knew all the other guys would be pushing but, once we got a gap, it was easier to do. If nothing happens, we should be alright for the win but, on this rally, it's not finished until it's finished.”
Wiegand will start Saturday's final five stages in second overall and on course for his maiden podium finish for Škoda Auto Deutschland following another solid display but, with Delecour narrowing his advantage to 24.7secs, the young German may yet have to settle for third behind the vastly experienced French legend.
Gergély Szabó ran as high as second on his first rally in a Eurosol Racing Team Fabia, but time lost through a brace of punctures means he his fourth overnight, one place ahead of top Romanian driver, and IRC Production Cup leader, Valentin Porcisteanu, who caused a stir when he equalled Mikkelsen's fastest stage time through the Sibiu superspecial stage.
Flodin's recovery has brought him up to sixth overall with Dream Team Ukraine's Vitaliy Pushkar a hugely impressive seventh in his IRC Production Cup-chasing Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. Marco Tempestini, last year's Sibiu Rally winner, is eighth with Edwin Keleti in ninth spot. A spate of punctures dropped Michaël Burri out of the top ten on his IRC debut for Saintéloc Racing, while Dan Girtofan's rally ended when he crashed his Škoda Romania-backed Fabia on stage two.
Andreas Aigner's bid for a third-straight victory in the IRC Production Cup ended when his Stohl Racing Subaru Impreza R4 STI suffered a broken wheel on stage two, but there were no such problems for IRC 2WD Cup title leader Harry Hunt, who overtook Robert Consani's Renault Clio R3 for the class lead on the final night stage to climb into tenth overall.
Catwees Honda Racing driver Martin Kangur headed the category in ninth place in his Civic Type R only to suffer three deflations on stage four, which forced him to tackle the superspecial with a punctured tyre due to the lack of a spare. He retired on stage seven when contact with a rock broke his car's fuel tank.
Saturday's action consists of five stages and begins with the 28.50-kilometre Gâtu Barbecului test at 11:12hrs local time. The finish is scheduled for 1900hrs in the centre of Sibiu.