Juho Hanninen has completed the opening day of the 2011 Sata Rallye Acores with a margin of 4.3 seconds over last year's winner Bruno Magalhaes.

Hanninen, the defending Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) Champion, snatched first place from Andreas Mikkelsen when the Norwegian was slowed on stage two with power steering failure, and extended his advantage at the wheel of his SKODA Motorsport Fabia Super 2000 with the fastest time on the day-closing super-special stage in front of several thousand fans.

"So far it has been quite okay, but there's a long way to go and I am expecting a big fight," reported the early leader. "I have a good feeling with the car, and I am happy to be starting fifth-on-the-road [on Friday]."

Despite his setback, Mikkelsen remains firmly in contention in his SKODA UK Motorsport Fabia, 1.4 seconds down on Magalhaes and a mere 5.7 seconds behind Hanninen heading into Friday's nine all-gravel stages on the mid-Atlantic island of Sao Miguel.

Magalhaes underlined his threat with the fastest time on stage two in his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207. The Lisbon driver suggested he could have been closer to Hanninen in the overall classification had it not been for a bout of understeer on stage one, which caused his front tyres to experience significant wear.

"It's fantastic to be in this position after some difficult rallies recently," enthused the local hero. "We made a few changes to the suspension, and the car is good. I am confident for a good second day."

"We saw some smoke in the middle of stage two, and then I started to lose the power steering," revealed Mikkelsen. "It was really scary after that, because there were some big crests to control the car on - but I still have a chance."

Hanninen's SKODA team-mate Jan Kopecky is fourth overnight. The Czech driver said he was still trying to restore his confidence on gravel, having not driven on a loose-surface rally for twelve months. He reported finding optimum braking-points as being particularly troublesome.

Patrik Sandell sits fifth on his return to IRC action in his SKODA Sweden Fabia - but far from happy. With the top five positions after stage two being reversed to determine the road order on Friday, Sandell will be forced to run at the head of the pack and forge a clean path through the surface gravel for the drivers behind.

"It was not really the plan, because I know it won't be easy but Hanninen was blindingly fast [on Thursday] from second on-the-road, so it's not completely a problem," the 29-year-old reflected.

Ricardo Moura heads the IRC Production Cup standings in a fine sixth overall at the wheel of his Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer. The local hero reported a trouble-free start to the event, but insisted that his priority was to secure maximum points in the Portuguese and Azorean championships, which he currently leads.

Guy Wilks is seventh at the end of day one and well-placed to cancel out the 29.3-second deficit to Hanninen based upon his more advantageous road position on Friday's stages. The Peugeot UK star dropped time on stage two to avoid being in fifth place at the end of the run, and conceded: "Maybe I've lost a little bit too much, but I've got a decent road position so I'll see what I can do."

Bryan Bouffier was hamstrung by running first-on-the-road in his Peugeot France 207 and is eighth overnight, 36.3 seconds behind Hanninen. The Rallye Monte-Carlo winner said it had been a struggle to avoid losing too much ground, and admitted his lack of knowledge of the Azorean roads and driving on gravel hadn't helped his efforts to stay in the fight for victory.

Subaru Impreza R4 driver Toshi Arai was ninth following stage two, but a spin and stall on the super-special enabled Vitor Lopes to move ahead in his standard-specification Impreza. Arai's team-mate, Fumio Nutahara, was 14th overnight.

Julien Maurin was eighth after stage one, but a water pump failure sidelined his M-Sport Ford Fiesta on the road section heading to the next run. The Frenchman plans to re-start on Friday under SupeRally regulations. Paulo Maciel heads defending champion Harry Hunt in the IRC 2WD Cup. Series' leader Jean-Michel Raoux is a distant sixth.



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