Giandomencio Basso completed the opening day of Rallye Sanremo with a lead of 5.2secs after the battle for victory on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge qualifier was turned on its head on the final 44-kilometre Ronde stage.

Basso started the monster test in fourth overall in his Abarth Grande Punto Super 2000 some 11.1secs off the lead. But, after going 15.5secs faster than any of his rivals through the stage, which was held in drying conditions following earlier rain, the 37-year old holds the advantage heading into Saturday's final five stages.

While Basso's performance behind the wheel of the latest-specification Punto, which features a wider track suspension, was sensational, his decision to use a slick tyre, albeit with 'cuts' to provide added grip, clearly gave him the edge over erstwhile leader Paolo Andreucci.

"The final stage was very slippery, but the car was working very well," he commented, "I was not completely satisfied with how I drove on the last part of the stage, but I am happy to be leading, although I know there is still a long way to go."

Double Italian rally champion Andreucci moved ahead of Kris Meeke on stage four, but had no answer to Basso's pace through Ronde thanks to his decision to opt for an intermediate tyre, which was less suited to the drying mountain roads overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, Andreucci's earlier speed enabled him to complete day one in second overall, 12.3secs ahead of Luca Rossetti, in the second works-assisted Grande Punto.

"It's been a good day with no problems," Andreucci reported, "The car and the tyres have been very good today, but we were not quick enough on the long stage. But it's still looking good for the Italian championship and that is very important."

Meeke, driving a Peugeot UK 207, had moved to the top of the leaderboard by going quickest on the day's first stage. He was still leading after stage three, but fell behind Andreucci after deciding to replace his front soft compound tyres with two hard compound versions, which the Northern Irishman said had dramatically affected the balance of his 207 and resulted in several lurid slides exiting tight corners.

Starting Friday's final stage 7.8secs off the lead, Meeke appeared to be on course to achieve his pre-rally aim of being within 20 seconds of the overall lead heading into day two of the rally, only to spin on Ronde and lose approximately 25secs. He completed the test with his car sporting damage to the rear-left corner, after it swiped a low wall, and with his hopes of a second consecutive Sanremo win seemingly in tatters.

"It's not over, but to win these rallies you can't afford to make mistakes like that," he said at the stage finish.

IRC title leader Juho Hanninen started Friday's final stage in third place following an impressive showing in his Skoda Motorsport Fabia S2000. Although he couldn't hold on through Ronde after reporting his choice of intermediate tyres was too conservative for drying surface, he will begin day two with a sizeable margin over team-mate and title rival Jan Kopecky, who is a distant eighth overall. The Czech admitted to being too cautious through the early stages and has yet to show the level of pace that has made him such a force on asphalt rallies this season.

Bryan Bouffier is sixth overnight in his 207 and was relieved to have completed the Ronde stage after admitting to his dislike of driving in the dark. Freddy Loix, who spent the first two loops of stages bemoaning his lowly start position of 13th in his factory Skoda, is seventh. The Belgian has won on all three of his IRC appearances so far this season but faces a tall order to climb the leaderboard after he was saddled with a ten-second penalty for entering the day's penultimate service halt 60 seconds late. The top seven drivers from Basso to Loix are covered by one minute, thereby underlining the close competition in the IRC.

Bruno Magalhaes, who is returning to IRC action after skipping last month's Barum Czech Rally Zlin, is eleventh overall in his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207. Guy Wilks, at the wheel of his Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia, is twelfth, with rising star Thierry Neuville 14th in his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207.

It was a disappointing start to the event for Niall McShea, whose PROTON Satria Neo S2000 ground to a halt on the road section heading to stage one with engine failure. However, team-mate Gilles Panizzi, a three-time winner in Sanremo, is 23rd on his first appearance for the Malaysian manufacturer.

Andreas Mikkelsen was another early casualty after he slid off the road seven kilometres into the first stage, where his M-Sport Ford Fiesta became stuck on a slope. Umberto Scandola crashed his similar car on stage five while running tenth overall.

Local hero Sandro Sottile tops the IRC 2WD Cup standings in his Honda Civic Type-R after making the most of his knowledge of the challenging roads.

Saturday's leg features 111.42 competitive kilometres and gets underway at 0750hrs local time. The first car is due to reach the finish in Sanremo at 1500hrs.



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