Esapekka Lappi had a Good Friday to remember after producing a stunning performance on leg one of the Discover Northern Ireland Circuit of Ireland Rally.
In a run which has put him on course for win number two in this year's FIA European Rally Championship, the Finn's Škoda Fabia Super 2000 was fastest on seven of the day's ten sun-baked stages to build up a lead of 12.6secs over local favourite Craig Breen at the overnight halt in Belfast's Titanic Quarter.
However, with the longest day of the rally still to come, there promises to be some serious competition ahead on Saturday's eight tests between the two Michelin-shod runners. Breen is not giving up on winning his home round of the ERC in Peugeot's new-generation 208T16, while Lappi is anxious to finish ahead of his rival in order to boost his title bid.
“It was almost a perfect day,” the 23-year old admitted, “We just lost three stages and I don't know why I lost the time to be honest. Even if Craig is going faster tomorrow, we are second because there is a big gap to the others and I said before the start I want to finish on the podium - I won't be doing any stupid mistakes and risking everything. It's exciting for the championship, but maybe I have to beat him because he is in front of me [in the title battle].”
Prior to the start, Lappi feared that he would struggle to make an impact on the ERC qualifier due to a lack of confidence on the challenging tarmac stages, but excelled throughout the day and even suggested that there could be more speed to come from him and co-driver Janne Ferm.
Breen finally ended Lappi's run of stage wins with the quickest time on the eighth test. However, he twice lost time smashing the rear windscreen of his Peugeot on landing one of the many jumps that litter the high-speed Hamilton's Folly test. He also ripped the rear bumper from his car swiping a bank following a huge moment while driving flat out in fifth gear on the second Bucks Head stage.
“I can't say I'm happy to be second but, when Esapekka is putting in the times he's doing, you have to look at the bigger picture,” the current European championship leader said, “The gap is not so big and we were quite fast on the last three stages today, the most enjoyable day of driving in my life because the stages are out of this world. Tomorrow will be an interesting fight and I'm sure it will be a case of the bravest man will win.”
Kevin Abbring was in a close battle with Breen for second when a broken radiator forced him to retire his 208T16 for the second rally in a row. However, the Dutchman was still able to demonstrate his huge potential. Abbring's misfortune handed the final spot on the provisional podium to Irish Ford Fiesta R5 driver Robert Barrable, who starts day two 8.8secs ahead of Germany's Sepp Wiegand in the second factory Fabia.
Sam Moffett had been closer to the fight for third only to lose time with an overshoot on the day-closing Newtownards street stage, which attracted an estimated 25,000 fans. He's 16.5secs adrift of Wiegand, with Frenchman Robert Consani sixth on his fourth rally in a four-wheel-drive car.
Neil Simpson is seventh, ERC 2WD leader Daniel McKenna eighth, Josh Moffett ninth and the top ERC Production Car Cup runner with ERC Junior pacesetter Chris Ingram tenth.
Not even a brake glitch on stage three could knock Irish youngster Moffett off his stride in the battle for showroom class honours in his Pirelli-shod Mitsubishi Lancer. Robert Woodside, who has claimed a brace of stage wins, is second overnight, 1min 30.6secs behind Moffett, with Eugene Meegan third and Stanley Ballantine fourth. Aaron MacHale had been expected to challenge for a podium but he went off the road on stage two and retired.
Despite limited running on asphalt in his Pirelli-backed Citroën DS3 R3T before the start, McKenna leads the ERC 2WD category on his European championship debut. Reigning British champion Jukka Korhonen was second starting the penultimate stage, but retired when he suffered a heavy crash in his similar car. Zoltán Bessenyey, the ERC 2WD title winner from 2013, is sixth overnight after early brake woes and a broken radiator held him back in his Honda Civic Type R. Portugal's Renato Pita is 14th.
Ingram belied his age – at 19, he's the youngest competitor in the new-for-2014 Michelin-supported series – to hold off title leader Jan Černý through Friday's stages. In fact, Briton Ingram said he'd never had it so good after a raft of improvements to his Renault Twingo R2 EVO had given him the performance he'd always craved.
Černý was far from happy with the set-up of his Peugeot 208 R2 in the morning, but changes in service improved the car's handling although a faulty clutch was a constant worry for the Czech. ERC Junior newcomer Alex Parpottas (Ford Fiesta R2) is a strong third, the university student's only moment of concern coming when he landed nose first following a jump on stage three. RACB National Team driver Gino Bux is a fine fourth on only his fourth-ever rally with Stephen Wright fifth, Petter Kristiansen sixth and Aleks Zawada seventh.
Wright struggled with set-up issues in the morning before he lost some 25 seconds when he spun and was unable to engage reverse on the Newtownards stage. Kristiansen was in third when he punctured a rear-left tyre running over Breen's bumper. The flailing rubber then ripped the rear brake line leaving the Norwegian with front brakes only for much of the afternoon. Zawada dropped back after a troubled afternoon, which included a front-right puncture, a gearbox mounting issue and a powersteering glitch. Andrea Crugnola crashed out of the lead battle on stage three. The Italian had scored his first stage win on the previous run.
Day two consists of a further eight stages over a distance of 117.14 kilometres, including the 29.02-kilometre Bronte Homeland test and the purpose-built stage through the streets of Lisburn, which is used twice in quick succession. It proved decisive in the outcome of the 2012 Circuit, when Andreas Mikkelsen momentarily knocked himself out when he crashed while battling Juho Hänninen for the lead...