Former F1 driver Robert Kubica dominated a thrilling first day on the Rally Islas Canarias El Corte Inglés to lead on his debut in the FIA European Rally Championship.
The Pole, who is making his first appearance on the demanding asphalt roads of Gran Canaria, set the pace aboard his Citroën DS3 RRC on all eight stages as unseasonal weather increased the challenge facing the 15 ERC regulars in action.
Jan Kopecký, chasing a hat-trick of wins on the island event for ŠKODA Motorsport, lies second overnight, already 1min 06.7secs behind Kubica, with Craig Breen a strong third for the Peugeot Rally Academy.
With rain and fog closing in by the time the opening stage got underway, Kubica's inspired choice of four soft-compound tyres proved decisive as he claimed all four opening tests. With the majority of his rivals opting for Michelin's medium-compound rubber, the Pole moved into a lead he was able to extend throughout the day, despite his relative lack of rally experience. His only major cause for concern came on the final stage, when he nudged a brick wall, but otherwise it was a clean run.
“It's been a good day,” the 28-year old acknowledged, “In the last stage, there was a tight junction, I pulled the handbrake and touched a house with the rear of the car. I had to reverse and lost 10-12 seconds, but it's been a nice day, perfect testing in different weather conditions. Now we just need to continue running at our pace and keep calm.”
Kopecký, the winner of the ERC season-opener in Austria, also suffered a moment in the afternoon, sliding for 40 metres after he got out of shape on a fast corner on stage seven.
“Robert is doing a great job and is very talented,” the Czech said, “I don't think I can catch him now so I just need to drive fast to keep my concentration and try my best tomorrow to finish second.”
Irishman Breen, on a high after finishing in second place on the previous round in Latvia, was within touching distance of Kopecký as the sunshine returned in the afternoon, and could have been closer had he not been saddled with a ten-second time penalty for leaving service in Las Palmas behind schedule as he delayed his tyre choice until the last possible moment. A set-up change prior to stage seven also had a detrimental effect on the handling of his 207 Super 2000 and he lost further ground to Kopecký.
“It was a mistake because the car was less precise, with more understeer than before,” Breen reported, “But I'm pleased with my performance and we were able to prove the 207 is still a competitive car.”