Freddy Loix will head the pack going into the second and final day of Rallye Sanremo, although with little more than two seconds covering the top two drivers on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge event, it looks like there will be a thrilling battle for the victory.

Skoda UK Motorsport's Andreas Mikkelsen was leading right up until the 44-kilometre Ronde night stage on Friday, the last test of the leg. However he couldn't stave off the flying Loix, who moved into top spot by going 7.2s faster than Mikkelsen in his BFO-Skoda Rally Team Fabia Super 2000.

The Belgian, who turns 41 in November, admitted to making a sluggish start to the rally and was down in seventh after the opening stage. But he quickly picked up his pace and set a brace of fastest stage times before he went quickest again on Friday night's final test.

"I lost a bit of time in the first stage like I always do but after I took back some time and it's going very well," Loix said. "The last stage was very difficult but my time was good so I am quite happy."

Mikkelsen, who was heading for victory on the previous round in Hungary only to crash out on the penultimate stage, was the first driver to tackle the night stage and his added caution ultimately cost him the overnight lead. However, an error-free drive and four fastest stage times marked an impressive opening day for the 22-year-old.

"The last stage was really, really tough. We were struggling in there but we could have gone faster. But it's been a really good day leading from the first stage. I have nothing to complain about," Mikkelsen noted.

Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg's Thierry Neuville had been in contention for victory until overheating brakes slowed him down on Ronde. As a result he's 16.6s off the lead in third position heading into day two.

"My time in the last stage was not so good because the brakes overheated," he confirmed. "I destroyed my tyres on stage five by losing too much in the downhill first part and then attacking too much in the uphill part."

Peugeot France's Bryan Bouffier is fourth overnight after a solid day in his Peugeot France 207.

Jan Kopecky, who started the event with a 17-point lead in the title standings, said he was at a loss to explain his lack of pace in his factory Skoda after completing day one in fifth overall, 34.2s behind leader and title rival Loix.

Bruno Magalhaes is a strong sixth in this Peugeot Sport Portugal 207 with Umberto Scandola the leading Italian in seventh overall in a M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000.

Former Sanremo winner Alessandro Perico (207) is eighth with Pierre Campana ninth following a troubled opening day. The rising star was firmly in the fight for a top finish only for an engine sensor fault to slow his Munaretto 207 on stage three. Repairs at service resulted in an engine mapping glitch, which meant his car was using 25 per cent too much fuel on the second loop of stages and losing power. To compound the Corsican's frustrations, his car's gear lever snapped on stage five. He then reached the end of the Ronde stage with a right rear puncture.

Skoda privateer Toni Gardemeister completes the top ten with Proton Motorsports' Giandomenico Basso slipping to 13th after an intercom failure caused him to briefly go off on Ronde and damage his Satria Neo S2000. Karl Kruuda also hit trouble on the night stage, crashing his Fabia.

There was drama on the opening stage when Guy Wilks smashed the front-left wheel of his Peugeot UK 207 on a bridge parapet after understeering on a patch of loose gravel and retired.

Chris Atkinson, in the second factory Proton, stopped shortly afterwards when his Satria Neo suffered a suspected electrical fault and stopped.

Neither driver will restart on day two with Atkinson's Proton team mechanics particularly keen to begin readying the car for the next IRC round in Scotland before they fly off to Japan for next weekend's Asia Pacific championship qualifier.

Florian Gonon meanwhile heads the IRC Production Cup standings in his Subaru Impreza with Marco Cavigioli firmly in contention in second place at the wheel of a Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer. Subaru driver Johan Heloise lost more than two minutes when he suffered a front-left puncture on stage three. He is fifth overnight behind Eamonn Boland and Corrado Perino.

As for the IRC 2WD Cup, David Medici is on course for his maiden win in the class after he completed day one with an advantage of 25.3s over Stefano Albertini. Sandro Sottile, the IRC 2WD Cup winner in Sanremo for the past two years, crashed into a wall on stage four and retired. Martin Kangur, in a similar Honda Civic Type R, lost time when his car's powersteering failed midway through stage five. Defending IRC 2WD Cup champion Harry Hunt was slowed by an overheating engine on stage one. Title leader Jean-Michel Raoux has struggled with the set-up of his Clio R3 on his Sanremo debut, reporting that his car's steering was too heavy.



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