Two tenths of a second will cover the top three cars when Sata Rallye Acores, round seven of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, resumes tomorrow (Friday). After the opening three stages, title leader Juho Hanninen holds a 0.2s advantage over Bruno Magalhaes with Andreas Mikkelsen tied on time with the Portuguese driver. The trio claimed a stage victory apiece as the gravel event on the Atlantic archipelago got off to a thrilling start.
Magalhaes, running fourth on the road in his Peugeot Sport Portugal 207 Super 2000, capitalised on the slightly cleaner road surface he encountered to go fastest on the opening stage. Although he admitted to making a few mistakes on the next test, which Hanninen won, he still maintained his overall advantage. However, he said that he was too hesitant over a jump on the day-closing superspecial stage, which allowed Hanninen to move in front.
Hanninen, tackling the stages second on the road behind IRC champion Kris Meeke, said he was surprised to have gone fastest on stage two after reporting a slippery stage surface due to the loose gravel. He attempted to counter this by carrying two spare BFGoodrich tyres in his Skoda Motorsport Fabia S2000, which he said had helped the balance of his car.
Running sixth on the road, Mikkelsen said he had struggled through stage two after being forced to make his pacenotes for the test during the fog-hit reconnaissance on Tuesday, but was otherwise delighted with his performance in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000 after recording his first stage win in the IRC.
Jan Kopecky is fourth overnight and will hope that his Skoda Motorsport mechanics will be able to plug a small hole in his Fabia S2000, which ingested clouds of dust during the opening stage, as well as repairing a broken clutch, which faltered seconds before the start of the superspecial stage.
Bernardo Sousa, the current Portuguese championship leader, completed leg one in fifth overall and will therefore start first on Friday’s second leg after the top five places are reversed to determine the new running order. He had trailed Meeke after the first stage but moved ahead of Meeke on stage two when the Northern Irishman dropped time in his Peugeot UK 207.
Meeke described driving first on the road through the loose coating of surface gravel as "impossible", while co-driver Paul Nagle admitted they feared they had picked up two punctures on stage one after running wide and clouting some rocks.
"You could see the times of the guys running further back were much faster than those running up front and that was definitely the case for me," said Meeke, who is sixth on the road for day two and well-placed to capitalise thanks to his superior starting position. "It was so easy to make a mistake because it was just so slippery."
Azores rally champion Ricardo Moura suffered an early blow when he picked up a puncture six kilometres from the end of the opening 14.9-kilometre stage in his Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. He’s ninth overnight behind Pedro Peres and Vitor Pascoal. Pedro Vale completes the top 10 in his Lancer.
Brazilian Rafael Tulio heads the IRC 2WD Cup runners in his Peugeot 206 with Carlos Oliveira next up in a similar car.
Friday’s leg consists of nine stages, the first of which, Batalha Golfe, gets underway at 10:03hrs local time.


Juho Hanninen (Finland), Skoda Fabia S2000, first overall: "It was very slippery so I am surprised I set such a good time on stage two. The car has been perfect but the big problem will be tomorrow and Kris Meeke because he will come very fast with his road position. But tomorrow is another day so we will see."
Bruno Magalhaes (Portugal), Peugeot 207 S2000, second overall: "I’m very happy. We did a test on Monday and I found a lot of confidence in the car, which gave me a good rhythm. I damaged my car on the jump in the superspecial last year so I took it more slowly this time and that cost me the lead."
Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway), M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000, third overall: "I decided to have a lot of fun on the superspecial and it worked very well for me. I don’t think we can push too much more but I am very satisfied with what we have achieved today."


1 Juho Hanninen/Mikko Markkula (Skoda Fabia S2000) 18m35.8s
2 Bruno Magalhaes/Carlos Magalhaes (Peugeot 207 S2000) +0.2s
3 Andreas Mikkelsen/Ola Floene (M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000) +0.2s
4 Jan Kopecky/Petr Stary (Skoda Fabia S2000) +5.5s
5 Bernardo Sousa/Nuno Silva (M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000) +11.3s
6 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Peugeot 207 S2000) +12.3s
7 Pedro Peres/Tiago Ferreira (Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX) +46.6s
8 Vitor Pascoal/Mario Castro (Peugeot 207 S2000) +47.4s
9 Ricardo Moura/Sancho Eiro (Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX) +49.7s
10 Pedro Vale/Rui Madeiros (Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX) +1m20.1s


Service C: Ponta Delgada, 09:30hrs; SS4: Batalha Golfe 1 (7.90kms), 10:03hrs; SS5: Feteiras 1 (7.47kms), 10:38hrs; SS6: Sete Cidades 1 (18.30kms), 11:03hrs; Service D: Ponta Delgada, 12:18hrs; SS7: Batalha Golfe 2 (7.90kms), 12:57hrs; SS8: Feteiras 2 (7.47kms), 13:32hrs; SS9: Sete Cidades 2 (18.30kms), 13:57hrs; Service E: Ponta Delgada, 15:12hrs; SS10: Lagoa/Marques 2 (14.90kms), 15:57hrs; SS11: Achada das Furnas 1 (8.42kms), 16:50hrs; SS12: Lomba da Maia 1 (7.80kms), 17:13hrs; Service F: Ponta Delgada, 18:38hrs.


Eurosport, Europe’s largest television sports channel, will show highlights of the opening day of the rally, which will also be available at www.rally-irc.com, as follows:
Thursday 15 July
23:00hrs-23:30hrs Day one highlights (Eurosport and Eurosport Asia-Pacific)
Friday 16 July
09:00hrs-09:30hrs Day one highlights repeated (Eurosport and Eurosport Asia-Pacific)
All times are CET


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