Juho Hanninen leads the Rally Azores after the first three stages - but just 0.2 seconds cover the top three drivers
Local driver Bruno Magalhaes led his first home event of the year for Peugeot Portugal for the first two stages, initially by just 0.3s over Andreas Mikkelsen's Ford, then by only 0.1s over SS2 winner Hanninen.
It was Mikkelsen who then won the day-closing Grupo Marques superspecial, which put him on equal second with Magalhaes, both of them 0.2s behind Hanninen's Skoda overall.
Jan Kopecky is fourth in the second works Skoda, struggling slightly with a clutch problem but still within 5.5s of the lead.
Road position has been a major factor today, with reigning champion Kris Meeke running first as the leg one order was set by numerical order on the entry list. The Peugeot UK driver described stage one as "unbelievably slippery" and found himself in fifth - which would have potentially put him first on the road for all nine of Friday's stages as tomorrow's order starts with the top five reversed.
But Meeke then dropped him on SS2 and fell to sixth behind Portuguese championship leader Bernardo Sousa - hinting that he slowed deliberately in order to do so - which left the frustrated Ford driver facing the worst of tomorrow's stage conditions.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap 1. Juho Hanninen Skoda 18m35.8s 2. Bruno Magalhaes Peugeot + 0.2s 3. Andreas Mikkelsen Ford + 0.2s 4. Jan Kopecky Skoda + 5.5s 5. Bernardo Sousa Ford + 11.3s 6. Kris Meeke Peugeot + 12.3s 7. Pedro Peres Mitsubishi + 46.6s 8. Vitor Pascoal Peugeot + 47.4s 9. Ricardo Moura Mitsubishi + 49.7s 10. Pedro Vale Mitsubishi + 1m20.1s
The fifth Intercontinental Rally Challenge was the best yet, and it was Skoda UK driver Andreas Mikkelsen who emerged as champion from a tense five-way shootout at the season finale. Matt Beer reviews the season