Paolo Andreucci will head a Peugeot one-two into the final day of Rally d’Italia-Sardegna tomorrow (Sunday) following a drama-filled opening leg of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge qualifier on the sun-baked Mediterranean island, when several drivers, including Sebastien Ogier, Andreas Mikkelsen and Guy Wilks hit trouble.
The Peugeot Sport Italia-run Andreucci, back competing in the IRC for the first time since Rallye Sanremo last September, made the most of his lowly starting position, which guaranteed a cleaner road surface, to take the lead on the day’s second stage only to drop behind defending IRC champion Kris Meeke on the very next run.
But a gamble to switch to a medium-compound tyre for the day-closing Monte Lerno stages, held in cooler temperatures, and coupled with his road position, paid dividends as the 45-year-old stormed ahead of his British rival with the fastest time on both tests after admitting he had gone on "full attack".
Meeke, driving a Peugeot UK-backed 207, had become the rally’s third different leader in as many stages when he swept in front with the fastest time on the second Monte Grighine stage, which was televised live on Eurosport. Co-driven by Irishman Paul Nagle, Briton Meeke extended his gap through the repeated Gonnosno stage but couldn’t replicate his earlier pace on Monte Lerno, which he put down to a combination of being too cautious on the slippery surface, sticking to the hard compound tyre and a slight power loss issue, which he said was reminiscent of the problem he suffered on Rally Argentina in March.
But while Andreucci and Meeke could reflect on strong opening days, Guy Wilks, was facing a night in hospital as he begins his recovery from two fractured vertebrae in his lower back, which he sustained when his Skoda UK Motorsport Fabia S2000 left the road at high speed on the day’s first stage. The car sustained a heavy front-end impact as it hit a tree, vaulted a fence and careered over boulders before coming to rest 40 metres from the road. Co-driver Phil Pugh was uninjured but Wilks was flown by helicopter from the crash scene to hospital in Oristano where X-rays revealed the true extent of his injuries.
Paolo Andreucci leads in Sardinia on his IRC return
There was some positive news for Skoda, however, as factory drivers Juho Hanninen and Jan Kopecky reached the overnight halt in Olbia in third and fourth places respectively with Czech Republic’s Kopecky taking two stage victories. He could have challenged his Finnish team-mate but for a mistake on stage three when he cut a corner too tightly and inflicted sizable damage to his Fabia’s front-right corner striking a rock, which necessitated a rapid overhaul in service by his mechanics.
Hanninen was hampered by having to run first on the road for much of the day after Sebastien Ogier, who started first, initially stopped to change a punctured tyre on stage two before pulling up for good with an engine overheating problem in his Peugeot Italia 207.
Fifth-placed Thierry Neuville, tackling his first gravel rally in a four-wheel drive car, said he gained plenty of experience after an encouraging performance in his Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg 207. He is comfortably clear of sixth-placed Teemu Arminen, who heads the Italian Gravel Rally Championship standings and is the leading driver in a conventional Group N car following a solid showing in his Tommi Mäkinen Racing-built Subaru Impreza.
P-G Andersson dropped to 36th overall after picking up a front-right puncture 10 kilometres into Saturday’s first stage but fought his way back up to seventh, despite his intercom link to co-driver Anders Fredriksson suffering an intermittent failure on stage five.
Like Arminen, Luigi Ricci is also chasing Italian Gravel championship points and is in eighth place, despite not being happy with his driving on the Monte Lerno stages. The Brescia pilot has sampled several different cars this season but is tackling his third event in a Subaru Impreza N14.
Italian Daniele Batistini is ninth in a Peugeot 207, one place ahead of Bruno Magalhaes, who came within eight seconds of going over the time limit following delays leaving the midday service while his Peugeot Sport Portugal team hurried to rectify a major brake problem. He picked up 2m30s in time penalties for his troubles and now faces the prospect of starting Sunday’s stages first on the road because the top 10 finishing positions from day one are reversed for the final day.
A host of drivers will restart under SupeRally regulations on Sunday. They include Burcu Cetinkaya and Yazeed Al-Rajhi, who both failed to go the distance due to mechanical faults. Andreas Mikkelsen will also restart after a misheard pacenote caused him to roll his M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 on the opening stage. However, Franz Wittmann won’t restart after rolling his Interwetten Racing 207.
Kaspar Koitla leads the IRC 2WD Cup in his Honda Civic Type R with Harry Hunt second in a Ford Fiesta R2, and Colin R Smith completing the top three in another Honda.
Juho Hanninen ran first on the road for much of the day
Paolo Andreucci (Italy), Peugeot 207 S2000, first overall: "Today has been very good and I hope for the same tomorrow. Apart from when I got a puncture close to the end of the first stage when I hit a rock, we’ve had no problems and the car and the Pirelli tyres have been very good. I went on a full attack on the final two stages today and I push again tomorrow to try to win."
Kris Meeke (United Kingdom), Peugeot 207 S2000, second overall: "It was all going really well until the last two stages when we just couldn’t find the rhythm or the speed we had before. The stage times just weren’t there and it was the same feeling we had in Argentina when we also had a loss of power. It’s so frustrating but we must now get to the bottom of it because if everything is right we can win this."
Juho Hanninen (Finland), Skoda Fabia S2000, third overall: "I am satisfied because it really hasn’t been easy being the first car on the road. I had to be very careful because it was easy to make a mistake. To be only 11 seconds behind is not bad and with the boys not far away I have to push but I also can’t take any risks."
Kris Meeke is second overnight in Sardinia
TOP TEN IRC POSITIONS AFTER LEG ONE
1 Paolo Andreucci/Anna Andreussi Peugeot 207 S2000 1h13m34.2s
2 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle Peugeot 207 S2000 +7.4s
3 Juho Hanninen/Mikko Markkula Skoda Fabia S2000 +11.3s
4 Jan Kopecky/Petr Stary Skoda Fabia S2000 +41.2s
5 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Klinger Peugeot 207 S2000 +2m55.4s
6 Teemu Arminen/Tuomo Nikkola Subaru Impreza WRX +3m46.3s
7 P-G Andersson/Anders Fredriksson Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X +5m31.7s
8 Luigi Ricci/Maurizio Barone Subaru Impreza WRX +5m35.4s
9 Daniele Batistini/Carlo Pisano Peugeot 207 S2000 +5m37.8s
10 Bruno Magalhaes/Carlos Magalhaes Peugeot 207 S2000 +6m24.0s
LEG TWO ITINERARY (SUNDAY 6 JUNE)
Service E: Olbia, 07:15hrs; SS8: Coiluna 1 (25.97kms), 09:00hrs; SS9: Terranova 1 (13.18kms), 10:09hrs; SS10: Coiluna 2 (25.97kms), 11:50hrs; Service F: Olbia, 14:00hrs; SS11: Monte Olia 1 (14.12kms), 15:21hrs; SS12: Terranova 2 (13.18kms), 16:05hrs; SS13: Monte Olia 2 (14.12kms), 16:54hrs; Service G: Olbia, 17:55hrs; Finish: Marina Vecchia, Porto Cervo, 19:00hrs.
Eurosport, Europe’s largest television sports channel, will show four stages live on Sunday as follows:
08:30-09:45: SS8 (Coiluna 1), LIVE Eurosport and Eurosport Asia-Pacific
11:45-12:45: SS10 (Coiluna 2), LIVE Eurosport and Eurosport Asia-Pacific
Highlights of each day of the rally will also be available at www.rally-irc.com