Jan Kopecky leads Alexey Lukyanuk by just half a second in a thrilling battle going into the final day of Barum Czech Rally Zlin, whilst FIA European Rally Championship leader Kajetan Kajetanowicz was unable to complete the opening leg.
Factory Skoda Motorsport driver Kopecky, the 2013 European Champion and a four-time winner of his home round, led from the popular street stage in Zlin on Friday night but has been pushed hard by rapid Russian Lukyanuk, who is driving his regular Ford Fiesta R5, prepared by local team H-Racing.
Lukyanuk broke Kopecky's streak of stage wins on SS5 Semetin, only to then take a trip off the road on the subsequent test. But posting the fastest time on SS7 (the second run of Kosiky, the event's longest stage at 22.22 kilometres) reduced his deficit from nine to 2.1 seconds, and he was then quickest once more on Hostalkova 2 to snatch the lead.
Kopecky responded however on the second pass of Semetin to finish the opening leg on top in his Michelin-equipped Skoda Fabia R5, albeit with only half a second in hand over Lukyanuk.
Speaking about the pace of the battle, Kopecky said: “I have never been driving so fast on this rally. It's crazy, unbelievable. I have to say thanks to this car because it's amazing.”
Lukyanuk, driving on Pirelli tyres, has a great opportunity to reduce Kajetanowicz's advantage in the standings after the Polish star was forced to stop out of third place on the road section that followed SS4 by an engine failure. His LOTOS Rally Team is set to have the problem rectified in time for Kajetanowicz to restart tomorrow in an attempt to salvage some leg points. However, if Lukyanuk remains in the fight at the front until the end, the title race will move on to next month's Rally Liepaja in Latvia.
The pace of Kopecky and Lukyanuk has left the rest of the field trailing in their wake. French asphalt ace Bryan Bouffier, making his third appearance of the ERC season in the local Gemini Clinic Rally Team's Citroën DS3 R5 is one minute down on the leaders in third. He was closely-matched throughout the day with Czech circuit racer Tomas Kostka, who is aiming to repeat his podiums on the event from 2012 and 2014 in a Rufa Sport-entered Fabia R5. He is 7.9s behind Bouffier overnight.
Czech drivers in Fabia R5s dominate the rest of the top 10, with two of them trading places on the day's final stage when regular ERC competitor Jaromir Tarabus moved to P5 ahead of ERC Junior graduate Jan Cerny, who only upgraded to his new model earlier this month. German championship leader Fabian Kreim had a cautious start to his first ERC event, but the Skoda Motorsport-supported 23-year-old showed improved speed in the afternoon as he climbed to seventh. Pavel Valousek fell from fifth to eighth when a stone in the road caused a flat tyre on his Fabia but ended the day as the closest man to Kopecky and Lukyanuk over the final two tests.
Ninth is last year's ERC2 runner-up Vojtech Stajf in the Fabia R5 he is campaigning in the Czech championship this year, 1.3s ahead of Martin Vlcek, who is driving Jaroslav Orsak's Fiesta R5 that first ran in the Azores in June.
Ralfs Sirmacis has produced top-five stage times in his first asphalt event in the Sports Racing Technologies Fabia R5 that he took to victories on the Acropolis Rally and Rally Estonia, but the 22-year-old Latvian lost over two minutes to a puncture on SS6 and thanked his team for avoiding a time penalty when they had to change the gearbox during the subsequent service halt. He is 14th, behind Belgian Cedric Cherain and ahead of ERC stalwart Antonin Tlustak, local veteran Roman Odlozilik and reigning Polish champion Lukasz Habaj, who suffered a number of problems on his Fiesta R5. David Botka is 19th after a couple of big moments, including a puncture on the day's first test. Dutchman Hermen Kobus crashed out of a top-10 position on the morning's second stage.
Sunday consists of six stages and 102.2 competitive kilometres. The 19.42km Kasava stage is first up at 09h08 local time, followed by the 18.43km of Pindula and 13.25km Majak. All three stages will then be repeated in the afternoon, with the final stage beginning at 14h48.