The 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge resumed its fast and furious battle among the ’next generation‘ of top-flight rally cars and drivers today (Thursday) with the start of the Sata Rallye Azores. A total of 50 cars were flagged away from the ceremonial start in the Atlantic port town of Ponta Delgada, with this new event for the IRC promising a feast of action on its combined gravel and asphalt stages.
"This event is unique and in its way quite like the Monte Carlo Rally," said Peugeot UK driver Kris Meeke. "The surface can change from one corner to the next, never mind from one special stage to another so it’s going to be a matter of holding on tight and being there at the finish."
Action got underway immediately with a crowd-pleasing superspecial stage which saw the contenders running two at a time in a gladiatorial start to the event. The biggest cheer of the night was for Meeke and his adversary, Frenchman Nicolas Vouilloz, both in Peugeot 207 S2000s, who virtually dead-heated their run through the purpose-built amphitheatre.
Nevertheless it was Belgian veteran Freddy Loix – the current championship leader – who claimed the overnight lead after a spectacular performance on the 1.7km superspecial, edging out Meeke and Vouilloz in front of the much-fancied Skoda Fabia of Czech driver Jan Kopecky. The action continues with nine timed stages tomorrow and ends on Saturday evening after a final leg of eight special stages.
"We had quite a hard landing that damaged the car slightly, but I’m sure that there is nothing to worry about," said Loix, after setting the fastest time. "It was very close and I’m sure that’s going to be the case again tomorrow."
Finnish driver Juho Hanninen, who will start as car number one tomorrow in his Skoda Fabia S2000, concluded: "The stages are very tough but very nice. There’s really something for everybody on this rally and a lot of variety. One of the most difficult things will be adapting to the way that you can suddenly go from a very fast section to a slow and technical section. There’s a lot to get used to."
Abarth driver Giandomenico Basso, who finished the opening stage in sixth, agreed. "This is going to be a really difficult rally so we have to be realistic about what is possible," he said. "We obviously start every event with the idea of achieving as much as we can, but it’s also a question of being sensible and making sure we are there at the finish. We should know a lot more about how everything looks tomorrow."
The weather will also play a vital role. Although conditions remained dry today, there is a strong chance of some rain during tomorrow’s nine stages. The first stage, Feiteras, gets underway at 08:15. The action continues with nine timed stages tomorrow and ends on Saturday evening after a final leg of eight special stages.
Top 10 positions after Stage 1

1    Freddy Loix/Frédéric Miclotte    Peugeot 207 S2000    1m 45.0s
2    Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle    Peugeot 207 S2000    +0.2s
3    Nicolas Vouilloz/Nicolas Klinger    Peugeot 207 S2000    +0.3s
4    Jan Kopecky/Petr Stary    Skoda Fabia S2000    +0.4s
5    Juho Hänninen/Mikko Markkula    Skoda Fabia S2000    +1.4s
6    Giandomenico Basso/Mitia Dotta    Abarth Grande Punto S2000    +1.6s
7    Bruno Magalhães/Carlos Magalhães    Peugeot 207 S2000    +1.6s
8    Anton Alén/Timo Alanne    Abarth Grande Punto S2000    +2.6s
9    Ricardo Moura/Sancho Eiró    Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX    +3.3s
10    Fernando Peres/José Pedro Silva    Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX    +3.5s
Championship positions after 3 rounds
1    Freddy Loix    Belgium    13 points
2    Sébastien Ogier    France    10
3    Giandomenico Basso    Italy    10
4    Carl Tundo    Kenya    10
5    Kris Meeke    UK    10
1    Peugeot    36
2    Ralliart    26
3    Abarth    14
4    Skoda    5

IRC series leader Freddy Loix heads the classification after the opening superspecial stage in the Azores


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