Defending FIA European Rally Champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz holds a one-second lead over the category's newest winner Ralfs Sirmacis following a close four-way fight for first place through the opening four stages of the Azores Airlines Rallye on Thursday.
Kajetanowicz won the first stage, only to slip to third on SS2 as local expert Ricardo Moura sped into the lead. However, the LOTOS Rally Team driver then used a strong drive on SS3 Vila Franca Sao Bras 1, which at 13.47 kilometres was the longest stage of the opening loop, to turn a 5.9-second deficit into a 5.5-second lead over Moura.
After the first three stages were dry, the mid-Atlantic archipelago's typically changeable weather brought heavy rain to the Grupo Marques superspecial that completed the day. Sirmacis posted the best time in his Michelin-equipped Skoda Fabia R5 before Ford Fiesta R5 drivers Kajetanowicz and Moura then struggled in worsening conditions, helping the young Latvian to climb to second place, just a second adrift of Pirelli-shod Kajetanowicz.
Alexey Lukyanuk had earlier defied his complete lack of experience in the Azores to top the Qualifying Stage, only to drop 13 seconds on the first proper test when he damaged the suspension on his H Racing-run Fiesta. He was able to make repairs and produce a fine comeback, winning SS3 and managing a decent time in SS4 despite sliding into a barrier to move up to third, 2.7s behind Sirmacis and 6.8s ahead of Moura.
The rest of the field has been left to fight over fifth, with David Botka enjoying by far his best day yet in his Citroen DS3 R5 to occupy the position overnight thanks to achieving the second best time in the superspecial. The next three drivers are all within a second of the Hungarian though, with Antonin Tlustak having also enjoyed a very positive day to sit sixth in front of Portuguese drivers Fernando Peres – returning after seven years away to an event he's won seven times – and Pedro Meireles. Frank Tore Larsen could have headed that battle on his ERC debut had he not gone off the road and got stuck on SS3, but the promising Norwegian will restart on Friday.
Joao Barros is ninth while Luis Rego climbed from 13th to 10th with a good time on the superspecial, when running first on the road on his first day in an R5 car became an advantage in the deteriorating conditions.
Reigning Portuguese champion Jose Pedro Fontes sits 11th having suffered with engine problems in his Citroen, while Jaroslav Orsak is 12th after an interesting first day in the ERC for nearly 12 months. The Czech driver suffered a puncture on his brand new Ford Fiesta R5 on SS1 and spent the rest of the day running a combination of Pirelli and Michelin tyres. In a huge field of R5 cars, Portuguese drivers Miguel Barbosa, Carlos Martins and Carlos Vieira are well within reach of the top 10, as is Italian Giacomo Costenaro, who suffered with lots of dust in the cockpit of his Peugeot 208 T16. After top-six finishes in Greece, Raul Jeets and Jaroslaw Koltun are experiencing tougher times on their first visits to the Azores, with both sustaining minor damage on SS1 and Koltun also struggling with additional car issues.
Leg one now resumes on Friday with six stages totalling 81 kilometres. A loop of three stages is run in both the morning and then again in the afternoon, with the highlights being the runs over the famous Sete Cidades test, which are also the longest stages of the rally at 25.62 kilometres.