Esapekka Lappi will start the final leg of Rallye International du Valais with a clear lead on the FIA European Rally Championship season-closer. However, with the longest day of the Swiss event remaining, Lappi's second ERC victory is far from guaranteed.

The rising Finnish star, who scored a debut ERC triumph in Poland last season, demoted overnight leader Andreas Aigner on Friday's opening test. Although Aigner remained in touching distance at the completion of the morning loop, drier conditions in the afternoon left his production-based Subaru Impreza R4 STI lacking the ultimate pace to prevent Lappi from pulling clear in his Super 2000-specification Skoda Fabia.

Although Lappi insisted building his experience on asphalt was his main target rather than pushing for victory, the 22-year-old produced two sensational stage bests this afternoon in his Michelin-shod Fabia to open up a healthy advantage starting Saturday's mixed-surface route, which covers a competitive distance of 146.3 kilometres.

"It's been a good day with no problems at all," said Lappi, who is competing in Switzerland less than a week after winning a rally in China. "The grip was much better in the afternoon loop and I got more confident with the corrected pacenotes so I could improve the speed. It's the toughest day tomorrow and if we can win this race then it will be okay. But if the conditions are difficult we will back off and come to the finish."

Despite losing the overall lead to Lappi, Aigner was highly satisfied with his performance in his Yokohama-equipped Impreza. "The times were fantastic in the morning. Okay we lost some time in the afternoon to Esapekka but I expected it. It's a long day tomorrow and one mistake from him I will be there. Tomorrow is easier than today for us with the gravel but it will be long and tough."

Olivier Burri, the eight-time Valais winner, remains the top Swiss driver in third overall in a Ford Fiesta RRC with Vasily Gryazin fourth following another impressive performance from the Russian teenager in a Fiesta S2000. Nicolas Althaus is fifth with J?r?mi Ancian climbing from 28th at the start of day two to sixth at the completion of Friday's final stage in Sion.

Ancian has been playing catch up throughout the day after he was saddled with a three-minute time penalty for an early check-in prior to Thursday's final stage. Such has been his determination to make up lost time that he was quickest on four stages today in his Peugeot 207 Super 2000.

Peugeot Rally Academy team-mate Craig Breen had targeted a similar rise up the order having incurred a time penalty of two minutes on day one. However, a knock on Friday's first stage damaged his car's powersteering and he was unable to prevent a significant time loss. The Irishman is eighth overnight.

Jaroslav Ors?k is seventh on his return to ERC duty from injury. The Czech completed leg two by going fastest outright on the Sion spectator special at the wheel of the GPD Mit Metal Racing Team Fabia S2000 he's using in competition for the first time in three seasons.

But while Ors?k has enjoyed a strong second day on his Valais debut, team-mate and event regular Anton?n Tlus??k retired with a broken exhaust at the start of the afternoon loop. Seven-time Swiss champion Gr?goire Hotz is also out after his Peugeot Switzerland-backed 207 stopped on the road section heading to stage nine.

In the ERC Production Car Cup category, Swiss Subaru driver Florian Gonon is second behind runaway leader Aigner with young French driver Romain Salinas third on his ERC debut in a Renault M?gane R.S. N4. Robert Consani had been in third for Team Renault Sport Technologies only to retire on Friday's first run with stud failure on his M?gane's front-left wheel.

Sylvain Michel, in a Citro?n DS3 R3T, reclaimed the ERC 2WD Championship category lead from Laurent Reuche on Les Casernes stage after the Renault Clio R3 driver had led for much of the afternoon. Mike Coppens is third with St?phane Lefebvre a strong fourth in his R2-specification Peugeot 208. Ekaterina Stratieva leads the FIA ERC Ladies' Trophy.

Leg three consists of eight stages over a competitive distance of 146.30 kilometres, including more than 35 kilometres on gravel. The opening stage, Champex, measures 9.53 kilometres in length and goes live at 09:40hrs local time. The finish is scheduled for 16:30hrs at the CERM exhibition centre in Martigny.



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