Peugeot's Kris Meeke is in a commanding position at the overnight point of Sata Rallye Azores, round four of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge
Meeke leads the similar Peugeot 207 of Nicolas Vouilloz by 40.2 seconds after day one of the gravel event. He took the lead on the first stage of the day after Thursday night's superspecial winner Freddy Loix hit a wall and punctured a tyre, costing him a minute.
Another of Meeke's rivals, Skoda's Juho Hanninen, was fastest on stage two but spun into an earth bank at the end of SS3. The impact damaged his Fabia's right-rear corner enough for him to have to hobble through SS4, losing over 10 minutes.
Meeke then had a fright in SS4, when he slid wide at a fast corner and clipped a rock hidden in grass. That broke the wheel of his Peugeot 207, but fortunately it was only one corner away from the finish of the last stage before service, so his mistake went unpunished.
"It was a big scare," he admitted. "If you go one inch off line on this rally, you can lose minutes. I didn't realise the wheel had broken at the time."
The mid-afternoon stages ran without major incident, but the final loop run around the morning stages put Meeke in a class of his own. He won four stages on the trot - six in all - to open up a sizeable advantage over Peugeot stablemate Vouilloz.
The final stage of the day, Pinhal da Paz, was halted when Hanninen's fightback ended with a sizeable shunt into a brick wall on a quick left-hander. His Skoda rolled, and brought down the adjacent masonry to block the stage.
The surviving Skoda of Jan Kopecky is third, the Czech setting his first fastest stage time on SS5. His rally did not start well this morning when he overshot a junction, but a mid-morning set-up change dialed out the Skoda's oversteer.
"My last time in this car on gravel was last July, so I think it's going okay now," he said.
Anton Alen was the best-placed of the Abarth Grande Puntos in fourth, although he complained a gearbox issue had cost him time throughout the day, while Loix fought back to fifth after his early error, which he explained was something, "a small boy might have done!"
Local hero Bruno Magalhaes (Peugeot) ran strongly early on until a transmission problem meant he only had three-wheel drive, and a similar problem afflicted World Rally Championship regular Conrad Rautenbach. They have slipped to the bottom end of the top 10.
The event concludes on Saturday, with eight more gravel stages around the mid-Atlantic volcanic island of Sao Miguel, part of the Azores archipelago.
Leading positions after leg one:
Pos Driver Car Time 1. Kris Meeke Peugeot 1h20m29.8s 2. Nicolas Vouilloz Peugeot + 40.2s 3. Jan Kopecky Skoda + 50.6s 4. Anton Alen Abarth + 1m18.2s 5. Freddy Loix Peugeot + 1m47.4s 6. Giandomenico Basso Abarth + 2m00.3s 7. Fernando Peres Mitsubishi + 2m10.4s 8. Conrad Rautenbach Peugeot + 2m47.4s 9. Franz Wittmann Mitsubishi + 3m18.4s 10. Bernardo Sousa Abarth + 4m04.5s
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