Andreas Mikkelsen has completed a dramatic opening day of the Cyprus Rally leading the Intercontinental Rally Challenge qualifier and firmly on course for the coveted title in his Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia Super 2000.

The 22-year-old started Friday's opening test with a 3.1s advantage following his fastest time on Thursday night's LTV Super Special Stage through the streets of Pafos, which attracted thousands of spectators.

Co-driven by Ola Floene, Mikkelsen grew that margin to 8.0s with the quickest run on stage two only for a spin - and a charging drive by Thierry Neuville - to drop him behind his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg title rival on the very next test.

But second became first when Neuville suffered a right-rear puncture on stage four before he was slowed by an alternator fault that would ultimately force his retirement from the day.

However, there were no such problems for Mikkelsen who charged to his third stage win of the day with a rapid run through stage five, one of two tests shown live on Eurosport, LTV and RTBF during the day, to hold an overnight lead of 20.7s.

"It's been a really good day for us and I have to be very happy," said Mikkelsen, who is currently on course for 50 points as double points will be awarded in Cyprus. "But there's a long way to go and day two will be difficult. I need to do everything to keep Nasser behind me if I am to win the title."

While Mikkelsen reflected on a strong opening day held in glorious Cypriot sunshine though, defending IRC champion Juho Hanninen was left to rue a 'stupid mistake' that caused him to crash on the second corner of Friday's first test and end his hopes of a second title in a row: "I was too fast for the corner, ran wide and rolled," said the factory Skoda ace.

Hanninen's Skoda team-mate Jan Kopecky enjoyed better fortune, reaching the overnight halt in third position 25.4s behind Nasser Al-Attiyah, the winner in Cyprus in 2010. Kopecky, who is being co-driven by Pavel Dresler after his regular navigator Petr Stary fell ill in the build-up to the event, admitted he was being too cautious in his bid to defend his title lead.

"Maybe I have been driving too cautiously today but I am still here and I still have a chance. My new co-driver has done a great job today but it's not been a normal situation," Kopecky said.

"We thought we had a driveshaft problem this morning but it was actually a problem with the front differential, which we repaired," Al-Attiyah added. "It will not be easy to close the gap to Andreas but I will try my best."

Meanwhile, Freddy Loix, one of five IRC title contenders prior to the start, struggled to make an impact in his BFO-Skoda Rally Team Fabia. The normally rapid Belgian hadn't driven on gravel stages for three years and lacked the cutting edge needed to threaten the podium positions on the loose surface sections, although a spin on stage five didn't help his cause. He is fourth overnight, 1m41.2s behind Mikkelsen.

Patrik Sandell is a strong fifth for Skoda Sweden with Estonian teenager Karl Kruuda sixth in his privateer Fabia.

Multiple German champion Matthias Kahle is seventh although a double puncture has hit Skoda Auto Deutschland team-mate Mark Wallenwein's chances of a top 10 finish.

Toshi Arai heads the IRC Production Cup standings in his Subaru Impreza R4 STI, while Cypriots Nicos Thomas and Charalambos Timotheou complete the top 10 in their Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancers.

Jean-Michel Raoux leads the IRC 2WD Cup with title rival Stefano Albertini and outgoing champion Harry Hunt still in contention in second and third respectively. Honda Civic Type R driver Janos Puskadi is fifth after early delays.

Saturday's action features three repeated stages north-east of the rally base in Pafos. The first stage of the day, Gialia, is 100 per cent gravel. The next stage, Stavros, takes place entirely on asphalt with the Anadiou test using a combination of asphalt and gravel and shown live on Eurosport.

Although Hanninen and Neuville will restart under SupeRally regulations their hopes of the IRC title are all but over leaving Mikkelsen, Kopecky and Loix in a winner takes-all battle for glory.

Cyprus Rally - Top ten IRC positions (after day one):

1. Andreas Mikkelsen /Ola Floene Skoda Fabia S2000 1h07m17.7s
2. Nasser Al-Attiyah /Giovanni Bernacchini M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 +20.7s
3. Jan Kopecky /Pavel Dresler Skoda Fabia S2000 +46.1s
4. Freddy Loix /Frederic Miclotte Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m41.2s
5. Patrik Sandell /Staffan Parmander Skoda Fabia S2000 +1m46.3s
6. Karl Kruuda /Martin Jarveoja Skoda Fabia S2000 +2m43.5s
7. Matthias Kahle /Peter Gobel Skoda Fabia S2000 +3m30.6s
8. Toshi Arai /Dale Moscatt Subaru Impreza R4 STI +4m35.3s
9. Nicos Thomas /Angelos Loizides Ralliart Lancer Evo IX +5m23.7s
10. Charalambos Timotheou /Pambos Laos Ralliart Lancer Evo IX +6m42.9s

IRC Production Cup: Toshi Arai /Dale Moscatt (Subaru Impreza R4 STI)IRC 2WD Cup: Jean-Michel Raoux /Laurent Magat (Renault Clio R3)



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