The new-look FIA European Rally Championship promised 'Serious Competition Ahead' – and the International Jännerallye in Austria certainly delivered throughout the first day of action with five different car makes filling the top seven places and five different drivers winning stages.
Skoda Fabia Super 2000 driver Jan Kopecky – last year's winner – ended the opening day ahead of the Peugeot 207 S2000 of Bryan Bouffier, who is making his debut on the event based in Freistadt, close to the Czech border. Local ace Raimund Baumschlager, in another Fabia run by his own team, sat third.
Baumschlager, a ten-time Austrian champion, was the only one of the top drivers to select narrow studded tyres for the morning stages. They cost him time on the largely ice-free first stage, but he was fastest on the second, which was peppered with ice and snow. Kopecky, on wide studded tyres in the morning, maintained his advantage until Baumschlager moved ahead on stage five. However, the Austrian veteran was unable to keep Kopecky at bay on stage six, which Bouffier won.
Kopecky and Bouffier then engaged in battle throughout the rest of the day, with Bouffier setting a staggering time on the rain and fog-hit eighth test to narrow Kopecky 'sadvantage to 9.4s. The rain continued on the final two night stages but Kopecky held on and will start day two leading by 20.2s.
“It has been two rallies in one day,” said Kopecky, who earns seven bonus points for leading after leg one. “I started on a gravel set-up for the snow and ice, the team rebuilt the car with Tarmac suspension and we kept our lead. It has been an amazing day but tomorrow is long and if there is ice on the stages it can be very difficult. The last stage is 25 kilometres and a lot of time can be made up.”
With another Austrian title his priority, Baumschlager's focus during the closing stages was more on preserving his lead in the domestic championship classification rather than trying to reclaim top spot. He made a conservative tyre choice as a result and is now 38.9s adrift of first place.
Czech driver Václav Pech is fourth – having held second at one stage – despite an off on the final stage, which left his MINI John Cooper Works S2000 sporting damaged bodywork and suspension. He had set the pace on the previous run.
Kajetan Kajetanowicz – one of four national champions to take the start of the event – is fifth and the top ERC Production Car competitor in a Subaru Impreza on the back of an impressive display by the Polish title winner.
French legend François Delecour had a much more eventful run, not quite getting the tyre choice right over the unpredictable first loop of stages, and then having to improvise a repair to his Peugeot's gear lever in the afternoon (using a bar from the jack) when the selector broke. His misfortune was compounded by a minute's worth of penalties following a timing error by the crew.
Beppo Harrach has shown plenty of speed on day one but problems with a misting windscreen have left him languishing in seventh, one place ahead of stage three winner Jaroslav Orsák. Jaromír Tarabus is ninth with Jan Černý 10th on his debut in a Fabia Super 2000. Černý was challenging for the top five when brake problems dropped him back.
Local hero Hannes Danzinger leads the ERC 2WD Championship standings in his Renault Clio R3 in a fine 14th overall. Hermann Neubauer is second in class, while former world rally champion Stig Blomqvist is 15th in a Mitsubishi Lancer.