The new-look FIA European Rally Championship's first visit to Latvia for Rally Liepaja-Ventspils is already producing serious competition in abundance with a mere 12.1s covering the top three drivers after Friday's opening trio of ice-coated stages.
Irishman Craig Breen, in a Sainteloc Peugeot Rally Academy 207 Super 2000, leads the event by 6.4s with Jari Ketomaa next up in a Ford Fiesta RRC. François Delecour is third at the overnight halt in Liepaja, 5.7s behind Ketomaa, despite completing much of Friday evening's final test with the door of his Peugeot refusing to close.
“Even as a kid I had a dream of leading a rally like this,” said Breen, who was quickest on all three stages alongside co-driver David Moynihan. “I wasn't taking any risks, just driving in the middle of the road. To be leading this rally into the night makes me so proud and I hope it's the start of a fantastic journey. The conditions have been tough but I'm on cloud nine at the moment.”
Finn Ketomaa, who opted to run first on the road after winning this morning's Qualifying Stage, remains firmly in the hunt for victory starting day two with Delecour also well placed in third. In addition to the problem with his car's door, the French rallying legend also reported being slowed by his decision to use a short-ratio gearbox after he was unable to conduct a pre-event test.
Russian Alexey Lukyanuk is fourth and the top ERC Production Car Cup contender in a Mitsubishi Lancer with Vytatutas Svedas in fifth. The Lithuanian reached the end of stage three with only half of his car's lightpod working and dropped time as a result.
Vasily Gryazin suffered considerable delay reaching the finish of the run after stopping to repair damaged suspension following an off. He was third overall after stage one. Estonian youngster Siim Plangi – who is sixth overnight – admitted his dislike of driving in the dark had affected his pace, while Raimonds Kisiels is the top Latvian in seventh in a MINI John Cooper Works RRC.
Vitaliy Pushkar, from Ukraine, has cancelled out a lowly starting position of 20th by completing day one in eighth place. Aivis Egle is ninth with Jan Cerny languishing in 10th after brake issues struck his family-run Skoda Fabia S2000.
Frigyes Turan is the leading Subaru Impreza driver in 14th, one position ahead of French rising star Stephane Lefebvre, who tops the ERC 2WD Championship classification in 15th at the wheel of a Peugeot 208 R2. Risto Immonen is his closest pursuer in the two-wheel-drive division, 10.6s behind with Hannes Danzinger, the 2WD title leader, next up in a Renault Clio R3. Zbynek Baller is the top Honda Civic pilot in 37th overall.
Saturday's action begins with the second running of the LDz Cargo stage at 10:20hrs local time. There will be six stages in total on day two, which concludes in the city of Ventspils, which is located 120 kilometres up the Baltic coast.