Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion Andreas Mikkelsen leads Giru di Corsica-Tour de Corse following the opening three stages around Ajaccio this afternoon.

However, with just 2.8 seconds covering the leading drivers, Mikkelsen has a big fight on his hands in his bid to win his first IRC event on asphalt and in his bid to extend his title advantage.

Giandomenico Basso, a four-time IRC event winner, set the pace on Thursday's opening stage in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta RRC, one of 21 Super 2000 cars in action on the picturesque Mediterranean island this week, with the uphill nature of the test better suited to his turbocharged machine. But the Italian, competing in Corsica for the first time, was unable to prevent Mikkelsen from snatching the lead when the Skoda UK Motorsport driver went fastest on stage two in his normally aspirated Fabia.

Neither driver could match the impressive speed of local hero Pierre Campana on stage three as the Corsican registered his first stage win in the IRC at the wheel of his Peugeot 207 S2000 to make up for the time he lost on stage two with two badly worn front tyres, the legacy of the twisty roads and the high ambient and ground temperatures. Campana trails MINI John Cooper Works S2000 driver Dani Sordo, who is making his IRC debut this week and is 2.8s off top spot.

"It's been a perfect day for us," said Mikkelsen. "Sordo is one of the best tarmac rally drivers in the world and he's been pushing hard, so I'm really happy with my performance today. I know the stages tomorrow a little better, so I'm glad to finish the first day so strongly. There is a long way still to go, but so far everything is going well."

Basso, who reported that his car's brakes and tyres were getting too hot on the demanding stages, reached the end of stage three 1.8s behind Mikkelsen, but is currently stopped on the liaison section heading to the overnight halt in Calvi due to a suspected mechanical failure. It's unclear whether or not he will be able to resume his challenge for victory on day two. Sordo, meanwhile, said a bout of understeer and a slight lack of cornering precision had masked his true pace.

Behind Campana, Mathieu Arzeno is fifth overall in his Sainteloc Racing Peugeot and satisfied with his efforts on his Corsica debut. Jan Kopecky slipped behind French talent Arzeno on stage three after losing time striking a concrete slab in his factory Fabia, which the Czech said affected the car's turn-in.

Despite set-up changes following the opening stage, Bryan Bouffier has so far been unable to totally cure the understeer that has affected his Peugeot. Nevertheless, the Frenchman remains firmly in contention for a podium place in seventh overall, 27.6s down on leader Mikkelsen.

Julien Maurin is eighth in his Fiesta with Corsican Jean-Marc Mazagol ninth in a Peugeot. Rising star Sepp Wiegand is 10th overall for Skoda Auto Deutschland. Dream Team Ukraine's OIeksandr Saliuk is 12th with Petter Solberg Engineering's Marty McCormack impressing on his first run in a Super 2000 car in 13th position.

Craig Breen's hopes of a maiden podium finish in the IRC suffered a setback when a front driveshaft failed on stage two, which he started in third overall following an impressive run through the opening test in his Saint?loc Peugeot. The Irishman is languishing in 24th after three stages, while punctures delayed Red Bull Team's Hermann Gassner Jr and Skydive Dubai's Rashid Al-Ketbi.

Andreas Aigner's return to regular international competition has got off to a strong start with the Austrian topping the IRC Production Cup classification in his Stohl Racing Subaru Impreza R4 STI. Pierre-Antoine Guglielmi heads the IRC 2WD Cup runners in his Renault Clio R3. Emmanuel Guigou is the top Renault M?gane driver in 18th position. However, intercom problems have delayed rallying legend Francois Delecour in a similar car. The former Corsica winner is 25th starting day two.

Japanese Subaru driver Toshi Arai holds 20th overall with Tommi Makinen Racing team-mate Jarkko Nikara, from Finland, 22nd. Hungarian Menya Krozser completes the top 30 in his Honda Civic Type R.

Friday's route now takes crews from the overnight halt in Calvi to Bastia with the bulk of the stages based around the town of Corte in the centre of the island. In total there will be five stages on day two over a competitive distance of 115.19 kilometres with the first run starting at 08:27hrs local time.



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